A man visiting a bar each evening, would routinely throw glass cups at the bartender and at the people sitting around and drinking. Yet he always made sure to follow up his violence by pleading for forgiveness. “I suffer from uncontrollable rage and I am deeply ashamed of it; please forgive me for my embarrassing and unforgivable behavior,” he would always say.
Finally, the bartender made an ultimatum with the man. He could not come back to the bar unless he underwent therapy for a full year. The man consented. He did not show up at the bar any longer.
After the year finally passed, the man showed up at the bar one evening. Lo and behold he took a glass and threw it right at the bar tender.
“What’s going on?” the bartender thundered.
“Well, as you have suggested, I went to therapy,” the man replied, “and now I am not embarrassed anymore.”
This week’s Torah portion (Mishpatim) deals with the laws of animals that damage other people’s animals or property (1). Say, for example, your domesticated usually well-behaved dog goes berserk and it suddenly attacks and bites another person or dog in a public place. Or your domesticated bull suddenly and uncharacteristically gores and kills another bull. What’s the law?
For the first three incidents, says the Torah, the owner of the bull pays for only half of the damage. Since it is unusual for the bull to let lose and gore somebody, the owner of the bull was not expected to be vigilant against it. Therefore, he is not deemed completely responsible for the loss and he splits the loss with the owner of the wounded animal.
This is true only for the first three incidents. After three incidents of such aggression, it is now established that this bull (or dog) is of a destructive nature and the owner is expected to guard his animal and is fully responsible for all damages done as a result of his failure to guard it (2).
Is “Repentance” Possible?
How about reorientation?
Can a bull or any other animal that went astray, resume their original status of innocence?
Yet, says the Talmud (3). This can be achieved in two ways. Either the owner rigorously trains his animal until its disposition is transformed from an aggressor to a restful animal. Another option states the Talmud, is to sell the animal or grant it as a gift to another person. With a new owner and new patterns and schedules, the Halacha (Jewish law) assumes the animal, coming from a species that is usually domesticated and well behaved, to be nonviolent until it is proven destructive again (4).
The Psychological Dimension
We pointed out numerous times that each law of the Torah contains in addition to a concrete, physical interpretation, also a psychological and spiritual rendition. This is one of the primary functions of the Jewish mystical tradition -- Kabbalah and Chassidism -- to explain the metaphysical meaning behind each law and Mitzvah of the Torah and the Talmud.
How can we apply the above-mentioned set of laws to our personal lives?
The Mystical Animal
Each of us possesses an animal within, an earthly and mundane consciousness that seeks self-preservation and self-enhancement. In the Jewish tradition, in contrast to some other traditions, the human animal is not seen as inherently evil and destructive, only as potentially evil and destructive.
Originally, when we are born, the animal within our psyche is innocent and even cute, like a cute little puppy. Its primary goal is merely to preserve its existence, to gratify its natural quests, and to enjoy a good and comfortable life. However, if our animal consciousness is not educated, cultivated and refined, this cute innocent animal can become a self-centered beast; sometimes the beast can turn into a monster, prone to destroy itself and others in its quest for self-enhancement and self-aggrandizement. Sometimes our animal can become addicted to various things (food, drugs, nicotine, alcohol, sexuality etc.) to desperately fill a void its experiencing.
Many people’s animals do indeed become, at one point or another, damaging forces, causing pain to themselves or to others. Yet there are two categories of damaging human animals. One who’s moments of aggression are seen as unusual deviations, and one in whom these destructive patterns become common behavior.
In cases where the animal is generally moral and decent and its act of destruction is an unusual anomaly, the Torah states, we ought to be more understanding of the “owner” of the animal. Nobody is entitled to gore or bite another human being ever, yet practically speaking we need to remember that even the most gentle husband could lose himself and raise his voice in rage and even the most loving woman may, in a moment of stress, make an obnoxious comment. It is painful, mends must be made, but it’s not the end of the world.
As long as the offender acknowledges hisher wrongdoing and accepts accountability for it, understanding and forgiveness should follow.
To be human is to err. Our goal is not perfection but accountability. Life will sometimes throw a curveball your way and in the shock that follows you may lose yourself and begin to “gore.” As long as you are accountable for your actions and words, your negative behavior is considered an “anomaly,” an aberration to your natural self.
But, if the incidents of abuse and destruction persists -- for example, if a husband continuously shouts at his spouse or children, or a person in leadership position shatters the lives of people under his control, or a wife has only derision for her husband, or a person cannot control their food or sexual addiction -- this behavior should not be condoned. We are dealing with an animal whose selfish, destructive and unhealthy inclinations have become the norm.
Making mistakes is part of life. But when these mistakes become regular habits, without being controlled and stopped, they are dangerous. Now they have turned into a life style, a routine, sometimes an addiction. The owner of this kind of animal cannot excuse himself or herself by saying, “I did not realize, I did not know.” He or she must take the bull at its horns (pun intended) and control it.
But how does such an animal return to its original innocent status? How does an animal gone wild regain the trust of the people it has hurt so badly? How can you change your life around?
Two Paths to Recovery
Two roads are available.
The first is a rigorous process of self-refinement, in which the animal learns to confront and challenge its deepest fears and urges and to de-beast its abusive character.
Yet, even before you manage to work through all of the dark chambers of your wild animal, the teachings of Judaism present another alternative as well: To change the jurisdiction of the animal.
Take your animal and submit it to the higher power, to the property of G-d. Even before elevating your animal to a higher realm, surrender it to the higher reality. Take your rage, your addictions, your depression, and your fear and submit them to G-d.
From G-d’s perspective, the universe is created anew at every single moment. You, I and all of existence are being re-created at each and every moment. So right now at this moment you can put your past demons to rest and start anew. You are a fresh newborn.
Talk to your animal, and reflect together on the following truth. Yes, I know that you have a complicated past and I am not denying that; I know you believe that you are prone and addicted to all types of behavior. But right now, my dear animal, we will look to the present, and we will live in the present. You and I were just created anew. With a clean slate. So let us finally begin to live. For real.
Yes, I know it is scary to really feel that you do not have luggage from the past and that you need to take full responsibility for your future, but please let us muster our courage and view ourselves from the perspective of existing in G-d’s domain. In His world, everything is recreated each moment. We can liberate ourselves from our past and defy ominous predictions of our future, as long as we do it now.
If you are serious, your animal will listen.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
I read this fabulous story (click here for the full story & article by Dov Greenberg):
In the 16th century, an innocent Jew was thrown in prison by a feudal baron who gave him a life sentence. For some reason, this tyrannical baron decided to show the man a bit of mercy. He told him, “Look Jew, you’re my prisoner for life, there’s nothing that will change that. But this I will do for you: I will grant you one day of freedom a year during which you can return to your family. Do whatever you want. I don’t care which day you choose. But remember, you have only one day a year.”
The man was conflicted. Which day should he choose? Should he choose Rosh Hashanah, to hear the sounding of the shofar? Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year? Passover, to celebrate a seder? His wedding anniversary?
This prisoner, not being able to make up his mind, wrote a letter to one of the rabbinic leaders of that generation, the Radbaz, asking for his advice.
The Radbaz said the prisoner should choose the first available day. Whatever it is, grab it now, don’t wait — be it a holiday, a Shabbat, a Monday, a Wednesday.
A Flood of Positive Energy
This was a marvelous reply. More important, it holds true for us as well.
Practically speaking, take your self and your animal and submit them to G-d, by submerging yourself in goodness and holiness. Fill your days and nights with meaningful and good behavior, with the study of Torah, the observance of Mitzvos, with acts of goodness and kindness and with a life of productivity and meaning, and much of the evil of the animal will wither away.
(This essay is based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented during the holiday of Sukkos 1987(5)).
1) Exodus 21:35-36 and Rashi ibid. From Talmud, tractate Bava Kama. 2) Such an animal is called in the Talmud a Muad, in contrast to a Tam, which is the title granted to a domesticated animal before it has attacked three times. There is an interesting argument among Talmudic commentators, if an animal that gores three times is deemed by Jewish law as having become of a destructive nature, or that its aggressive pattern of its behavior demonstrates that it has always been of such a disposition, we were merely unaware of it (Acharonim to Bava kama 2b.) This debate has some interesting implications, particularly when we review this law from a spiritual and psychological perspective, discussed below. 3) See Bava Kama 14a; pp. 39-40. Rambam Hilchos Nizkei Mamon 6:6-7. 4) Though this option is disputed in the Talmud (Bava Kama 40b), Maimonodies (ibid.) the view mentioned above as the final law. 5) Part of this talk was published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 36 pp. 102-108.