The Torah reading in Parshat Mishpatim is the basis of the most fundamental principles of civil law till this very day: Liability, damages, personal injury, criminal, labor relations and financial transactions.
Beyond the astounding insights in the laws of liability, lies another dimension of relevance within these laws: Their personal application.
Based on several verses in this week’s portion (Exodus 21-22), the Talmudic tractate Baba Kama, outlines “four prototypes of damages – the animal, the pit, the destroyer and the fire.”
On a basic level, surface level, these prototypes are the primary categories of torts, intentional or negligent acts which injure another person. But the soul of these categories defines four prototypes of psychological, emotional and spiritual abuse, each with many derivatives:
1. Active, indiscriminate aggression – “the ox.”
2. Negligence; Passive aggression – “the pit.”
3. Excessive indulgence – “the destroyer.”
4. Anger and other destructive forces – “the fire.”
Active, indiscriminate aggression – “the ox”
Selfish behavior, in which a person serves his own needs, “trampling” on everything in his path – insensitive to the fact that he may be hurting others in the process. Like a beast in the wild, he moves about serving himself without regard of others’ boundaries and needs. Choices are driven primarily by his own emotional needs, including the tendency to blindly and indiscriminately follow his own wiles and desires.
Negligence; Passive aggression – “the pit”
In contrast to active aggression, abuse can also come in the form of passivity. A parent that remains silent while the other parent is hurting their child is an accomplice to the crime. Abuse doesn’t always mean that the abuser did an act; it can also manifest in the lack of action. Like the passive damage caused by the negligence of leaving a pit uncovered, allowing an innocent passerby.
Excessive indulgence – “the destroyer”
Abuse driven by personal pleasure. The other three forms of abuse, selfishness, passivity and anger, are not necessarily motivated by the abuser’s personal gratification.
Anger and other destructive forces – “the fire”
Anger, shame and other destructive forces in the psyche can drive a person to hurt others.
All four methods cause damage, yet each has its own particular characteristics, thus the need to enumerate them all. The first and third category (the ox and destroyer) are animated forces, while the fourth (fire) is inanimate. The second (pit) is stationary, as opposed to the other three which are moveable.
There are two opinions in the Talmud regarding the meaning of the term used for the third category of damage (maveh). Rav holds, that it means a person causing damage. According to Shmuel, it means a grazing animal (and the category of “Ox” includes strictly a trampling animal). According to this opinion, the “four principle categories” are only categories of damages done by a person’s possessions, i.e. faculties, not by a person himself. The abusive person himself – the source of all the destruction – deserves his own classification.
But according to both opinions, this third category is driven by self-gratification, and as such, it is called the “destroyer” being the worst form of abuse: The first opinion sees it as pleasure of the heart, pleasure that consumes the entire person, while the latter opinion narrows it down to pleasure of the “tooth,” a “biting” form of abuse which “obstructs speech,” i.e. impedes the Divine transmission (as explained by the Arizal in this week’s portion). In psychological terms, this relates to the delectable delights of the palate (Sefer Hasichos 5701 p. 64).
What are the consequences of these four root forms of abuse?
When an ox causes damage with its tooth or foot in public domain, its owner is not held responsible, since it is expected to graze and walk around, and people should therefore be careful about leaving their things about in a public domain. If, however, the ox roams into someone’s premises other than its owner’s and there causes damage, its owner is liable for the full value of the damage caused. In contrast, if an ox causes damage in the public or private domain by goring with its horn, its owner is liable for half the value of the damage done. Since we do not expect an ox to gore unprovoked, the owner cannot be held fully responsible no matter where it causes damage.
The psychological application of this law is profound: Certain standards that are acceptable in the pubic domain are destructive in the private domain. The environment in the marketplace is one of competition, negotiation and deal making. In a climate of self-interest and distrust, the business world expects and requires us to be at times tough, as we “graze” and establish our “turf.” In the material world we need to use our “animal” tools to protect our interests. Everyone follows these universal rules, and as long as they are moral and just (masa u’matan b’emunah), behaving this way cannot be considered damaging, even if someone may be hurt in the process of acceptable business practices.
This attitude is quite acceptable in the public domain. But in the private domain, this same aggressive attitude is damaging and destructive. Our homes should not be polluted by the mechanics of the workplace.
Even in the pubic domain there are also limits to aggression. “Grazing,” feeding off legitimate profits and treading on the grounds is acceptable. Using one’s “horns” to gore and hurt others, however, is not. Furthermore: Even the acceptable standards of “grazing” must be done with deep discretion. If it causes someone hurt or damage the law states that once is free of responsibility. But if the damage persists, then the perpetrator is classified a “muod,” an aggressive one, and he is held responsible for the damages.
Much more can and should be said on this topic. Hopefully, the ideas here – based on the teachings of the Zohar, the Arizal and Chassidus – can serve as a springboard to do amore comprehensive study on the different “parent” forms of abuse, and all their derivatives. So that we can develop better interventions to heal our ailing world.
The point of understanding these fundamentals of abuse is, obviously, to serve as preventive medicine, and not allow these toxic forces to seep into our lives. And even if they tragically do, to take the right measures to remedy the situation.
May we be blessed, very soon, to reach the day when these issues will no longer plague the human race. Instead, we will apply their relevance to the never-ending quest of spiritual development into the infinite and beyond.