“From Seemingly Obscure Laws, the Torah Teaches the Ultimate Value of the Sanctity of Human Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Mishpatim, which means “laws,” the Almighty instructs Moshe to set before the People of Israel the entire structure of civil jurisprudence. Parashat Mishpatim contains 53 of the 613 commandments in the Torah– 23 positive and 30 negative commandments.

Given the Torah’s antiquity, the extent and breadth of these laws is quite remarkable: the parasha begins with laws concerning the rights of persons, the Hebrew manservant and maidservant, and continues with laws concerning murder, kidnaping, personal injuries, injuries by beasts, offenses against property, theft, damage by cattle, fire, laws of safe-keeping, moral offenses, seduction, witchcraft, sodomy, polytheism, oppression of the weak, loans and pledges, truth and impartiality in justice, love of enemy…quite an impressive list, for a very ancient people. While some of these laws seem to be well ahead of their time, like oppression of the weak, impartiality in justice, others seem to be quite primitive, which of course raises the question of the “eternal” relevance of the Torah.

In my discussion, I would like to focus on one law from this week’s parasha — death caused by an animal, a pretty rare occurrence in contemporary life, and attempt to explain its modern day relevance.

In Exodus 21:28, we read, “V’chi yee’gof shor et eesh o’ et eesha v’mait, sa’kol yee’sa’kail ha’shor, v’lo yay’ah’chail et b’saro, u’vaal ha’shor nah’kee,” If an ox shall gore a man or a woman, and that person shall die, the ox shall surely be stoned, its flesh may not be eaten and the owner of the ox shall be innocent. The Torah in this instance is referring to a case of a domesticated animal. Being that the animal has no prior history of violence, the owner could not be expected to be particularly vigilant. Nevertheless, the Torah tells us that because there is a very distinct hierarchy in life, the animal must be put to death even if the death of the human being was accidental.

I remember reading, many years ago, an editorial in the New York Times decrying an owner of an alligator farm in Florida who shot an alligator that had mauled and killed a child. The editorial argued that the alligator did what was expected of an alligator. The child’s parents, on the other hand, were negligent for not keeping the child away from the alligator pit. From the Torah’s perspective, as articulated in our case of the ox that gored and killed, the owner of the alligator farm had taken the correct action, even if the parents were negligent.

I didn’t always understand this law until many years later. My aunt and uncle had retired to Miami. One day, while crossing a street, my aunt was run over by a laundry truck. She was in a coma for six months before she succumbed. Every time my uncle saw a laundry truck, he would say: “That’s the truck that killed my wife!” The rabbis suggest that an animal that kills a human being be put to death to spare the sensitivities of the deceased’s family, so they would not be able to point to an animal on the street and say: “That is the ox that trampled my child.” Perhaps a contemporary implementation of this law would be that any vehicle involved in a lethal accident be junked and removed from the road, or left on the roadside as a warning to others that this vehicle killed a human being or was involved in a lethal accident. All this goes to underscore the sanctity of human life, which is, after all, the bottom line of all of Judaism, and to heighten our sensitivity towards negligent behavior that may result in injury or death.

The above cited law regarding injuries by animals continues with Exodus 21:29, “V’im shor n’agach hu, mitmol shil’shom, v’hu’ad b’va’alov, v’lo yish’ma’renu, v’hay’mit eesh o’ eesha, ha’shor yee’sa’kail, v’gam ba’alav yu’mat,” But if it was an ox that gores habitually from yesterday and the day before, and its owners had been warned but did not guard it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and even its owner shall die. The Torah is underscoring that a vicious animal can be regarded as a lethal weapon. The owner of such an animal who is negligent, may be regarded as a potential murderer.

The very next verse however, verse 30, includes a very unusual clause which allows for the exoneration of the owner. “Im kofer yu’shat a’lav, v’natan pidyon nafsho k’chol asher yu’shat a’lav,” When an atonement payment shall be assessed against him, [the owner of the animal] shall pay as redemption for his life, whatever shall be assessed against him. Perhaps because the Torah realized that the death came about indirectly through an ox, and not as a result of the owner’s personal actions, this death cannot be considered premeditated and deserving of execution, even though the owner’s negligence resulted in death. Rather, Jewish law allows the owner of the vicious animal to pay a fine, imposed by the court, freeing him from the death penalty.

The expression brought down in verse 30, of kofer, an atonement, and pid’yon nafsho, redemption of his soul, appears a few chapters later in parashat Ki Tisah (Exodus 30:12). The army of Israel is counted through donations of a half shekel. “Ki Tisah et rosh B’nai Yisrael lif’kuday’hem,” When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their numbers, “V’nat’nu eesh kofer nafsho la’Hashem, bif’kod otam,” And every man shall give to G-d an atonement for his soul when counting them. Why would a soldier give an atonement for his soul? Perhaps we can learn why from the laws of the vicious animal? Just as the owner of a vicious animal that kills deserves to die, but may redeem his soul through a payment process, so perhaps the Torah is telling us that a soldier, no matter how justified the cause for which he battles, whether in self-defense or not, is a potential killer, and therefore needs to pay a redemption for his soul before he goes out to war.

3,300 years ago, the Torah taught the world about the ultimate value of the sanctity of human life. No document before the Torah, nor any after the Torah, was to express with such profound emphasis, how invaluable human life was, and how much respect we must have for human life–the greatest of G-d’s gifts. While Judaism does justify soldiers and battles, the Torah clearly reflects in its philosophy a palpable sentiment toward pacifism. You may go out to war, says the Torah to the Jewish soldier, however, beware never to exult in war; always recognize the tremendous cost of battle to both the aggressor and defender. Every soldier who goes out to battle must do so with a profound sense of humility, knowing that he is a potential killer who deserves to be punished, and must pay a ransom for his soul to G-d.

Our Torah is a very ancient code with very modern, avant-guard insights into life.

May you be blessed.