Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lifnim Mishurat ha-Din: How Not To Be An Observant A-Hole

I’m currently working on transforming part of what I taught on Shavuot into a coherent blog post. But in the meantime, something happened that made me want to post a little shortie that seemed very relevant.

So, Julie and I are having a little issue with our landlords regarding the resolution of having our fridge die on us the last time we were out of town. The precise details aren’t important; what’s relevant is that I ran into a lot of frustration in trying to convey to them why they ought to do anything more for us than the strict letter of the law compels them to do.

What was frustrating for me is that I realized how much American society lacks the language available to us as Jews in these regards. What we were looking for from our landlords was not merely mishpat ve-din (the letter of the law) but going lifnim mishurat ha-din (“between the lines of the law”). This concept is an important one in halachah, because our Rabbis realized that sometimes, the strict letter of the law may be constructed in such a way as to still provide opportunities for a person to be (as Ramban so pithy puts it) a naval bi’reshut ha-Torah, which is usually translated as “a scoundrel inside Torah’s jurisdiction,” but more accurately could be rendered “an a-hole within the bounds of Torah.” That is to say, someone who will consistently follow the mishpat ve-din, but will do so without leavening of either chesed [lovingkindness] or rachmanut [compassion]: such an individual acts, as Rav Kook tells us, out of yir’at ha-chok [the fear of the law and the consequences of transgressing it] rather than from ahavat shamayim [the love of Heaven].

To act lifnim mishurat ha-din is to go over and above one’s minimum obligations, because of empathy for the circumstances of other people, and the desire for a better world to live in, and sometimes because one knows that exceeding the minimums of the law for reasons of compassion and thoughtfulness pleases God, who delights in people caring for each other. And such action is especially meritorious, because not only does it foster gratitude between people, and inspire the recipient of such behavior to emulate it with others (“paying it forward,” as we say these days in America), it causes people to bless God, who inspires His people to such actions.

A famous story is told in tractate Bava Metzia, in Talmud Yerushalmi (YT B. Metz. 2:5), of an incident involving R. Shimon ben Shetach, one of the Zugot (the original heads of the Pharisaic schools during the late Second Temple Period):

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach earned his living by selling flax. His students once said to him:

“Rabbi! Rest a while, and we will buy you a donkey so that you will not have to work so hard.” They bought him a donkey from a certain Bedouin, and found that a very valuable pearl was attached to its harness. Then they came to him and said:

“From now on you will no longer need to labor!”

“Why not?” he asked. They replied:

“Because we have bought you a donkey from a certain Bedouin and it had a valuable pearl attached.” He said:

“Does the seller know about the pearl?”

“He does not,” they replied. Whereupon he ordered them to give the pearl back to the Bedouin.

The question was raised: But did not Rav Huna Bevai bar Gozlan say in the name of Rav: It was decided in the presence of Rebbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi] that even those authorities who rule that anything stolen from a non-Jew is forbidden for a Jew to own, agree that something a non-Jew loses is permitted for a Jew to own?

The answer was given: Do you think that Shimon ben Shetach was a barbarian?! Shimon ben Shetach would rather hear the non-Jew say: “Baruch Elohei Yisrael!” [“Blessed be the God of Israel!”] than have any material reward this world has to offer.

This is the model of behavior we are encouraged to emulate. R. Shimon would have been well within his rights to keep the pearl. The rules of the marketplace begin with caveat emptor. And R. Shimon was a great man, whose time surely was better spent teaching Torah than scraping a living: and if a man can sell a donkey without even noticing a valuable pearl on its saddle, he must surely be wealthy enough to afford its loss.

But that’s just not how we roll.

Better to profit less from a transaction than to have one’s extra profit come at the expense of another’s unexpected loss. Better for one’s “extra profit” to come from the joy of making another’s life a little unexpectedly easier.

This ideal is something conspicuously absent from modern Western culture-- certainly from American culture. And, to be fair, it’s something that we in the Jewish community don’t always live up to, either. We’ve produced an unfortunate number of nevalim bi’reshut ha-torah, all through our history, and in every movement and stream of Judaism.

Perhaps if we vigorously and visibly dedicate ourselves to this ideal, the non-Jewish world around us can pick it up from us by example.


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