Friday, Jul 19, 2024

Loving Litigants

Amongst his many journeys, Alexander the Great once visited one of the ancient Indian kingdoms. When the Indian monarch saw him, he was sure that the Greek conqueror was there to plunder his wealth, so he opened up his treasure house and offered Alexander all of his valuables to prevent him from waging a war against him. But the warrior assured him that he was there only to observe how the king judged disputes that came before him. As they spoke, two men came before the king with a strange argument.

The plaintiff claimed that he brought a property from his friend that included a garbage dump. In it, he found a treasure that he wanted to return to the seller. “I bought a garbage dump,” he said, “but not what was buried in the ground. The treasure does not belong to me.” To this, his friend countered, “I sold you the entire property. The treasure is rightfully yours.”


Alexander waited anxiously to hear how the king would adjudicate this disagreement.


The king asked one of them, “Do you have a son?”


“Yes,” was the answer.


Then he asked the other, “Do you have a daughter?”


He, too, answered in the affirmative.


“If so,” said the ruler, “have your son marry his daughter. They will eventually inherit both the property and the treasure and together they will enjoy the riches.”


Instead of being impressed by this the noble dispute and the decision, the haughty Alexander started laughing.


“Why are you laughing?” asked the king. “Don’t you like my decision? What would you have done?”


“Where I come from,” said the conqueror, “we would have killed both litigants and the treasure would have been added to my coffers.”


The king prepared a huge feast in honor of the great warrior. The tables were beautifully set and Alexander was ready to indulge in the royal cuisine. But there was something different about the food, something very strange. The king had his servants bring out loaves of bread made of gold and plates laden with chicken and meat made of gold.


Disappointed and angry, Alexander asked: “Do you think I can eat gold? Will it satiate my hunger?”


“Why, then,” asked the king, “do you have such a lust for gold and silver? May despair come from those who can’t eat their gold yet they covet it so much.”


“Does the sun shine in your land?” asked the king.


“Most certainly,” said Alexander.


“And does it rain in your country?”




“And do you have animals there?”


“Most certainly.”


“Then you are only sustained in the merit of your animals, not by your corrupt way of life. As it says (Tehillim 36:7), ‘Both man and beast You save O’ Hashem’” (Yerushalmi,Bava Metziah 2:5).


– – – – –


How often do we hear of a dispute coming before a bais din where each side argues that the other deserves to win? Rarely, if ever. Yet, from the Medrash in this week’s sedrah, it would seem that, ideally, this is the way a real din Torah was meant to be.


And these are the mishpatim that you shall place before them” (Shemos 21:1). On this, the Medrash quotes a posuk: “Mighty is the King who loves justice, You established fairness” (Tehillim 9:4). The strength belongs to the King of kings, Hakadosh Boruch Hu, and He loves justice and gave its laws to the people who love Him, Yisroel. You established fairness for Yisroel, for through the mishpatim that you gave them, they create arguments amongst themselves and they make peace with each other.”


Seemingly, the phraseology of the Medrash is backwards. One would think that we were given the mishpatim so that if Yidden get into a dispute, they will use the laws of the Torah to settle it. Yet, the Medrash says the exact opposite. Because Hashem loves justice and fairness, He gave us the mishpatim to create arguments amongst themselves and then make peace. Why would the Torah, with its ways so pleasant, be a cause of strife and argument, and if so, how is this a special privilege that we’ve been given by Hashem?


The Dubna Maggid explains that it is well-known that a person’s sensitivities to other people’s needs are determined by his own level of refinement. The more elevated one’s level is, the more he realizes that he must be careful not to infringe on the rights of others and not to hurt their feelings. The simple, less cultivated person, however, lacks the perception to be cautious in these matters. That which one of a higher level considers sinful is considered permissible by a more primitive person.


As an example, to the secular world, stealing and murder are cardinal sins, but embarrassing someone is not considered a crime. Our Torah, though, teaches us otherwise: “One who embarrasses his friend in public is considered like one who spilled his blood” (Bava Metziah 58b). Similarly, to infringe on someone’s livelihood is a form of committing adultery, for it is an invasion of another man’s private territory.


The mashgiach of Bais Medrash Elyon, Rav Yisroel Chaim Kaplan, was once sitting by his shtender with his head down, crying. A talmid approached him and asked what had happened that upset him so. He answered that he had just seen one bochur embarrass another in public. The talmid, somewhat relieved, asked him, “Surely that bochur did something wrong, but is it so upsetting that one should cry about it?” Rav Yisroel Chaim answered him, “Were you to see someone take out a knife and stab another person, wouldn’t you cry?” The talmid nodded. “Well,” said the mashgiach, “this is the same thing.”


When Rav Ahron Kotler ztl first came to America, he did not possess a Shas. He wanted to learn a certain masechta which he did not have in his house, so his rebbetzin asked a neighbor if their Gemara could be borrowed. Their neighbor’s son had received a Shas for his bar mitzvah and was thrilled to lend a volume to the gadol hador.


A few months later, when the rebbetzin returned the Gemara, she told the boy, “I want you to know that every night, when the rosh yeshiva would learn from your Gemara, he did not put his hands down on the table. When I asked him about it, he said that he did not want to put them down on the Gemara, for then he might rip or rub out the pages (heard from my rebbi, Rav Yechezkel Munk, owner of the Gemara). 


Rav Chatzkel Levenstein once went to his rebbi, Rav Nochum Zev Ziv of Kelm, and saw him cutting his fingernails and then carefully filing them down meticulously. He explained that since he uses many seforim that belong to the tzibbur, inevitably he might rip a page or ruin it with his nails. Therefore, he is careful to finely cut and file them.


These are keen sensitivities that only someone who is steeped in Torah can possess. He is not only knowledgeable in Torah, but also attuned to the spirit of its lessons. For this reason, we are commanded, “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your cities” (Devorim 16:18). In every district, in every city. The proliferation of judges and chachomim to teach us these laws elevates us and refines us to be attuned to the keener aspects of bein adam lachaveiro.  


The real purpose of mishpatim is not to see what the halacha is when people are claiming money for themselves. To the contrary. The Torah wants to sensitize us not to take something that is not ours and not to encroach on another person’s rights even when, on the surface, we aren’t doing anything wrong.


This, explains the Dubna Maggid, is the meaning of the Medrash which states, “Through the mishpatim we create arguments.” We become more careful with the interests of other people and create questions. Are we infringing on someone else’s domain? To the extent that people will have arguments similar to the one observed by Alexander, where each side claims that the treasure belongs to the other, the mishpatim inculcate in us an instinct to worry about our friends’ money.


Many of us remember the tragic Egged Bus #2 bombing in Yerushalayim in 2003. There were numerous fatalities and serious injuries, many of them involving chareidim. The Yediot Achronot newspaper sent a reporter to the hospital to focus on how the chareidi Jews were coping with the calamity.


One of the injured Yidden was in a coma, and the reporter observed that, from time to time, when he came out of the coma for a few moments, he asked, “Are you from Egged? Are you from Egged?” This scene repeated itself every few hours. When the Yid finally recovered, again he asked if there was anyone there from the Egged bus company.


The reporter who wondered about this all this time asked him why he needed a representative from the bus company. The reporter was astounded to hear the Yid answer with genuine temimus, “Because when the bus arrived, I hopped on through the back door intending to pay the fare to the driver. But with the bus exploding, I never got to pay the money.”


This was instinctively on his mind even while he was unconscious. Mi ke’amcha Yisroel. 




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