A man is talking to the family doctor. "Doc, I think my wife's going deaf."|
The doctor answers, "Well, here's something you can try on her to test her hearing. Stand some distance away from her and ask her a question. If she doesn't answer, move a little closer and ask again. Keep repeating this until she answers. Then you'll be able to tell just how hard of hearing she really is."
The man goes home and tries it out. He walks in the door and says, "Honey, what's for dinner?" He doesn't hear an answer, so he moves closer to her. "Honey, what's for dinner?" Still no answer. He repeats this several times, until he's standing just a few feet away from her.
Finally, she screams on top of her lungs, "For the eleventh time, I said we're having MEATLOAF!"
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's 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.
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 your 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 -- this behavior should not be condoned. We are dealing with an animal whose selfish and destructive 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 property of G-d. Even before elevating your animal to a higher realm, surrender it to a higher reality. Take your rage, your addictions, your depression, and your fear and submit them to G-d.
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 G-dliness, 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. A dangerous beast will turn into a delightful soul.
I once heard from the Lubavitcher Rebbe a meditation that can help bring you to this state of surrender. It goes like this:
“My dear animal! You know that we are created anew at every single moment. You, I and all of existance are being re-created at each and every moment. You are a fresh newborn.
“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.
If you are serious, your animal will listen.
(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.