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LEGAL BEAGLE

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this week's Torah portion, heading an extensive discussion of various types of property damages, the Torah deals with a goring ox and the damages that its owner must pay. The legal principle is that goring is not normal for an ox (unlike, for example, eating produce or trampling objects).

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In this week's Torah portion, heading an extensive discussion of various types of property damages, the Torah deals with a goring ox and the damages that its owner must pay. The legal principle is that goring is not normal for an ox (unlike, for example, eating produce or trampling objects). Therefore, when the ox gores, or does anything else out of the ordinary, the owner is not to be held responsible to pay full damages (he instead pays only half), since there is an element of "an act of G­d" involved. However, this holds true only as long as the animal remains tam (innocuous). But if it repeats this behavior three times, the owner loses this defense. The animal is now mu'ad (under warning), and any damage it causes makes its owner liable for full restitution. In order for the animal to be mu'ad, though, each incident must be followed promptly by an actual "warning" by two witnesses in the presence of a Jewish court of law.

An ox can lose its mu'ad status and revert to being tam. One way is if it gets over its madness and becomes noticeably docile again, "so much that children can play with it and it will not gore" (Talmud Tractate Baba Kama 23b). Another, less obvious, way is if the owner sells, trades, or lends it to someone else.

What is the logic behind this second way? The following two different reasons are offered by two classical commentators. Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Talmud, gives a legal reason: The "warning" to the first owner cannot be transferred. Even though the animal may still be just as vicious, there is no legal evidence of it yet with which to hold the second owner accountable. By contrast, the Meiri, an important 13th century comprehensive commentary on the Talmud, finds a practical reason: With a new owner, in a different environment and a different daily routine, the factors that made the animal go wild probably no longer exist. We can assume that the animal has, in fact, reverted to its original tame nature.

Like everything in Torah law, there is a lesson here for us. The legal "ox" parallels a moral "ox", the "animal soul" within every human being which is constantly on the prowl to fulfill its physical desires. In this context, the ox is most appropriate for comparison because, properly channeled, its strength can be used to plow a field and produce food. In the same way, the "animal soul" is not intrinsically evil, for almost any instinctive urge can be turned into a tool with which to better serve G­d.

At first, then, this so-called ox in the person is fairly tame - it limits itself to pleasures and desires that, in and of themselves, are "kosher". But eventually, it may lead the person to the forbidden fruit, once, twice, three times, until it becomes an ingrained habit. As the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 86a) puts it, "Once a person has repeated a sin twice, it feels to him like a permissible act" - and Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the great 19th century teacher of mussar (Jewish ethics), added, "And after a third time, it feels to him like a mitzvah!" At that point, the mu'ad status has set in; from now on, the owner is responsible for all of his soul's damages, and it may be very difficult to extract oneself from this condition.

So how do we go about getting the "animal soul" under control and returning it to a harmless state? As with the ox, there are two basic ways. One is to attack the negative trait head-on and tame it; the way to do this is to move to the opposite extreme, in order to completely eradicate the old behavior. Thus, in his classic code of Jewish law, Maimonides defines the litmus test of true teshuvah (repentance) as being "when the person is faced with the same situation and does not repeat his former deeds." Consider, for example, a person who has successfully recovered from addiction to alcohol, who knows not to drink alcohol at all, even at occasions when most people would.

The other method is to "sell" the animal soul to another "owner" - to move it into a new spiritual domain, one of increased Torah study and mitzvah observance. When a person studies Torah and does mitzvot for the right reasons - in order to obey G­d, rather than as a "bargaining chip" to get G­d to obey him - it has a powerful effect on his ingrained negative traits. This power is unique to the Torah; it is not shared by any other science, system of laws, or system of ethics.

How does this work? As with the mu'ad-turned-tam ox, there are two ways of understanding the process - which are, in fact, two ways that this can happen, depending on the individual: It can be that the underlying urge has not been transformed, only beaten into submission by a higher force. This is in keeping with Rashi's explanation, where the ox may still be just as vicious as before the sale, and only a legal principle prevents us from viewing it as such. The problem here is, then, what will happen when the effect of that higher force wears off (and spiritual highs are notoriously difficult to maintain)?

So the better way is to allow this "change of domain" to actually transform our negative inclinations, paralleling the Meiri's reasoning, in which the change of ownership brings about a real change in the animal itself. We should work on redirecting our natural tendencies and urges, so that the next time one of them raises its head, it will not be to demand something with which to better serve ourselves, but rather to spur us to obtain something that will help us better serve G­d.

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Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.

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