Mishpatim 5773 – Beyond the Letter of the Law

And if a person opens a pit or if a person digs a pit and does not cover it, and a bull or donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall pay, he shall return money to its owner, and the dead body shall be his (Shemos 21:33-34)

The Gemara in Bava Metzia 30b states that Yerushaliyim was destroyed because people did not go beyond the letter of the law. People were very strict in keeping the law exactly how it is stated. The question is obvious – if people were so careful to keep the law carefully, why was our Holy City destroyed?

This week’s parsha mentions that if a person digs a hole and does not cover it, he is liable for damages done to an animal that gets harmed by the hole. Let’s imagine this scene for a moment. Ruvain is digging a hole a few feet deep in a public street. After he finishes digging it, he leaves the site and the hole is left uncovered. Levi is walking with his donkey and doesn’t see the hole. Suddenly, his donkey falls into the hole and dies. Ruvain is, of course, responsible to pay for the damages.

Now, let’s add one detail. During the whole time Ruvain is digging, Shimon is standing a few feet away from him watching. Shimon watches as the hole is dug and then left uncovered. He sees people walking down the street and laughs to himself as he sees Levi’s donkey about to fall in. The donkey then dies and Levi is rolling in laughter. He could have easily covered the hole or screamed out to Levi to be careful, but he didn’t. What is Shimon’s punishment? According to the letter of the law, Shimon has not done anything wrong. He is not held liable nor is he punished.

But, was Shimon correct in what he did?

A person can strictly follow all of the written laws and not be held liable, but he may still be wrong. Just because a person might not punishable in an earthly court does not mean he did everything properly.

Let’s bring another example. There is a dispute over a certain amount of money between Yissochar and Zevulun. According to the letter of the law, Yissochar is correct and is entitled to all of the money. He has two decisions, he can strictly follow the law, get into a nasty dispute in court, and win the money. Or he can compromise with Zevulun and avoid going to court. It might seem like going to court would be the more pious thing to do because he is right and would be following the law. But if he does that, Zevulun will probably never speak to him again. They will probably grow to hate each other and the families will avoid each other. On the other hand, if they compromise, even though this is beyond the letter of the law for Yissochar, he and Zevulun will probably remain friends. Even if they aren’t friends, at least it won’t be awkward for them when they see each other in shul or at a wedding or another function. Even though the money is rightly his, avoiding the dispute can be much more beneficial.

Yerushaliyim was destroyed because people strictly followed the letter of the law — but when they strictly followed the letter of the law, it caused more disputes. When a person goes beyond the letter of the law, he brings more peace to the world.

Good Shabbos!
-yes
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