One's Fellow Man
This week’s portion deals with many of the practical application of the laws relating to how man interacts with his fellow man.
These laws were given over at Sinai. In fact, the Mechilta (Midrashic work, written around 2000 years ago) states that the reason for the juxtaposition between the laws stated here and the Ten Commandments (given over in last week’s portion) is because both of them were communicated at Sinai.
There is a particular emphasis in this portion on the laws of damages (see 21:12-37, 22:1-14).
The Talmud states (Tractate Bava Kamma 30a): “Rabbi Yehuda said: whoever wants to be a righteous person should learn the laws of damages. Rava said he (one who wishes to be righteous) should learn the Tractate Ethics of the Fathers, and there are those who say one should learn Tractate Berachos.”
What does this statement from the Talmud mean?
The Maharal explains that there are three things a person must achieve in order to reach his maximum potential: 1. To relate to G-d as the Creator of the world 2. To properly relate to his friends 3. To know himself.
The main thrust of Tractate Berachos is prayer, in other words communicating with G-d. The main thrust of the Talmudic order of Damages (Nezikin) is how a person interacts with his friends. The thrust of Ethics of the Fathers is to teach a person to relate to himself (obviously this does not mean in a selfish way; rather, how to know himself so that he is able to relate to G-d and his fellow man in the proper fashion).
The concept that man should know G-d is quite obvious to any system which proclaims belief in G-d. Similarly, the idea that man should know himself is also quite logical. If a person does not know himself, then he is not truly able to channel his energies and desires into a relationship with anything else, let alone G-d.
But why is it righteousness that a person should know his fellow man? And more than that, that the term for properly knowing his fellow man is euphemized as damages? Does this mean that to love your friend is to cause him no harm?
The Torah does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, in certain specific situations regarding prayer, the laws between man and G-d, are apt to change depending on the amount of people present. This highlights for us that man’s relationship with his fellow man is so important that it can actually change how we relate to G-d.
But as important as these relationships are, there is also great emphasis placed on man as an individual. Each person has his own space, both physical and spiritual, which must be respected by others. Without this space, a person can lose his identity.
To damage someone else is to minimize him as an individual. It is crucial to be on guard that this should not happen, and if it does, it must be rectified.
In order for a person to reach a level of righteousness, he must be extremely careful to make sure he does not infringe in any way onto his friend’s possessions. And this is the way of righteousness.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.