“The four primary categories of damagers [are] the ox, the pit, the maveh and the fire…” (Mishna, Bava Kama 1:1)

The source for this Mishna which opens the section of the Talmud called Nezikin, “damages”, that deals with civil law is parshat Mishpatim. In the parsha, we are introduced to the goring ox, the pit (or other obstacle) in the public thoroughfare and the fire. The Talmud analyses each of these categories in minute detail and discusses under what circumstances the owner of the ox, the digger of the pit and the setter of the fire are liable for the damage they caused. But what is the third item listed in the Mishna, the maveh?  The Talmud (Bava Kama 3b) records an argument between the sages Rav and Shmuel regarding the identity of this damager. Rav is of the opinion that maveh is man and Shmuel is of the opinion that it refers to damage caused by an animal through eating. According to Shmuel, when the Mishna speaks about an ox, it is referring to damage caused by goring, pushing, kicking and so forth. This is unusual behaviour on the part of the animal and until such behaviour becomes habitual, the owner of the ox pays only half of the damages.  However, damage caused by eating is entirely normal and predictable and the owner must pay the full amount, even for a first offence. Rav maintains that when the Mishna speaks about an ox, it includes all damage caused by an animal, regardless of whether it is regular or unusual behaviour.   

Both Rav and Shmuel cite Biblical verses that contain the root bet, ayin and heh (ba’ah) to bolster their opinions. For the purposes of this essay, we will focus on Rav’s opinion. He cites a verse from the prophet Isaiah (21:12), “The sentry said: The morning comes, and also the night; if you ask, ask [im tiv’a’yun b’ay’u]; come again.” Here, the root ba’ah means to ask or request. Rashi, in his commentary to the Talmud, explains what the prophet is speaking about in this verse: “The sentry said” – this refers to the Holy One, blessed is He; “the morning comes” – redemption for the righteous; “and also the night” – darkness for the wicked; “if you ask, ask” – if you will repent and ask for forgiveness, then ask! We see from this verse that the word ba’ah refers to man who petitions God for forgiveness and other favours. This word appears as a noun in the full Kaddish: “May the prayers and pleas [va’ut’hon] of all Israel be accepted by their Father in Heaven.”  When the Mishna calls man maveh, it is defining him as the being who prays. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (Germany 1914 – Israel 2005) notes in his ethical classic Alei Shur (volume I chapter 2), “This is the definition of man – that he is the one who prays. For prayer is the action that symbolises man more than any other action.  Actions such as war, building homes and even organised social structures – we find these also amongst other creatures. But the ability to approach the Creator and Sustainer of all worlds and to speak to Him face to face, using the second person, “You”, this is the inheritance of man alone.”

It is rather telling and somewhat ironic that in a Mishna dedicated to the topic of damages, the word used to denote man is the same word for one who worships God. On the one hand, man is violent, harmful and dangerous. On the other hand, man is a humble servant of God who pours out his heart before his Creator.  As a causer of damage, nothing is more dangerous than man. This point is made in the final Mishna of the second chapter of Bava Kama: “[The legal status of] a person is always that of one forewarned. Therefore, whether the damage was unintentional or intentional, whether he was awake while he caused the damage or asleep, whether he blinded another’s eye or broke vessels, he must pay the full cost of the damage.”  Unlike an animal who might cause damage in an unexpected and unusual way, man is considered a habitual damager and is always liable for his actions.

When my children were younger, we often frequented the Two Oceans Aquarium at the Waterfront. The Aquarium once had an exhibition in which it attempted to convey the message that predators of the animal kingdom were not quite as dangerous as we had been raised to believe. The exhibition featured a series of full-size posters. One poster showed a Great White Shark breeching, with the caption, “The ocean’s apex predator.” Another poster depicted a magnificent lion with an impressive mane and powerful jaws, with the caption, “The savannah’s apex predator.” The next “poster” was a mirror, in which one saw one’s reflection. The caption above was “The world’s most dangerous predator.”

One of the most significant films of 2023 was Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan. The movie focuses on the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist credited with being the “father of the atomic bomb” for his role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II undertaking that developed the first nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer, an assimilated Jew, led a team of scientists in a race against time to develop an atomic bomb. They were imminently successful and due to their research, America brought World War II to a close when they dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th August 1945. This is an example of man, the damager, at his most dangerous. In 1976, Rabbi David Lapin, formerly of South Africa, currently of Raanana, Israel, came to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York. Rabbi Lapin was struggling with his responsibilities as a businessperson and a community rabbi. Rabbi Lapin asked the Rebbe about the responsibilities that he faced and the limitations that he felt which seemed overwhelming. How could he manage it all? What should he give up – his business or his Torah teaching? Where should he direct his energies? The Rebbe replied that he would have more influence on others if he remained in business while teaching Torah. Rabbi Lapin relates what happened next: “I was still very young, and I couldn’t imagine how I could continue to do both. So, I burst out with: ‘I don’t think that this is realistic. I’m already up to here … I feel very humbled and very honored that you would even talk to me this way, but it just isn’t realistic!’ I remember clearly his response to my outburst. He said: ‘I’ll tell you what your difficulty is – you think that human interaction is like a chemical reaction. But it isn’t. In a chemical reaction, there are two elements which interact with each other, and they result in a third compound. But people aren’t chemicals. When people interact, the result is a nuclear reaction. A nuclear reaction occurs at the core and then it radiates in a spherical, rather than a linear way. As the outer rings of your sphere get bigger and bigger, the number of people you are touching gets bigger and bigger – indeed, there is no limit. When you touch the heart of one person, there is a nuclear reaction because that person in turn touches so many other people. So, each person you touch – even if it is a moment’s interaction – represents a nuclear reaction in terms of impact. That’s what it really is.’”

I find the Rebbe’s analogy of a nuclear reaction very instructive. It is a powerful illustration that the same creature that can destroy a world with nuclear energy can build a world employing similar energy. We are both the most fearsome destroyer and the greatest builder.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   

Rabbi Liebenberg

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