Sign In Forgot Password

I Told You So

02/16/2023 05:49:04 PM


Rabbi Scott Hausman -Weiss

Parashat Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, follows on the heels of last week’s revelation of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments provide us with a “Cliff’s Notes” answer to the ultimate question: What does God want from us?  The Prophet Micah responded even more succinctly when he taught that what God wants is for human beings “to do justice, to have mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Standing alone,  the Ten Commandments point us unequivocally  towards holiness, respect, gratitude, and learning to manage our own personal gremlins. Good stuff…important reminders.  Parashat Mishpatim elaborates on those foundational directives  with a great many more, and much more specific, rules.  Among others…

  1. How an Israelite is to treat their own slaves (yes…complicated but for another blog).
  2. How to manage a death caused by someone accidentally.
  3. What to do if two men are fighting and a pregnant woman gets caught up in the tussle, falls, suffers a miscarriage but she survives (monetary compensation).
  4. And what to do if someone’s ox, known to have “gored before” (and by “gore,” the Torah means, “cause bodily harm or death to a person”).


I’d like to invite you to ponder this last one with me for just a moment:

וְאִ֡ם שׁוֹר֩ נַגָּ֨ח ה֜וּא מִתְּמֹ֣ל שִׁלְשֹׁ֗ם וְהוּעַ֤ד בִּבְעָלָיו֙ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְרֶ֔נּוּ וְהֵמִ֥ית אִ֖ישׁ א֣וֹ אִשָּׁ֑ה הַשּׁוֹר֙ יִסָּקֵ֔ל וְגַם־בְּעָלָ֖יו יוּמָֽת׃ 

If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring (mitmol shilshom), and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:29)

What I am particularly interested in today is the notion of how this was assessed.  Of course, it could be that in any small village or hamlet, where everyone knows each other, there is a common historical memory.  “Yes, I remember at the last fall harvest when little Susie Q met the bad end of the Fox’s ox’s horns.”  However, Mishpatim isn’t meant to manage just the small spaces we occupy; its purpose is to guide the Israelites–newly freed from slavery in Egypt and coalescing as a people–as they enter  into and make their home in the land of Canaan, spreading out across the land from sea to sea.  To me, this is where the statisticians and record keepers must  have entered the picture.  If there were to be recourse for the repetition of bad outcomes, mitmol shilshom, known and recorded to have taken place before, then there would have to be a means to record and prove it.

This is a longer way of sharing one gun violence statistic that took my breath away this week.  Washington Post reporters John Woodrow Cox and Steven Rich have been managing a longitudinal study of gun violence in schools since Columbine.  A very interesting article, worth the read.  But here is where I believe we get some wisdom from our tradition.  According to Cox and Rich, there have been 181 school shootings since Columbine in which the shooters were students.  And in 86% of them, the students retrieved the guns not from legal or illegal sales, but from the homes of friends, relatives, or parents.  More than 8 out of 10 times that a child opens fire on other children and adults, they got the gun from “home.” This is the ox that has been known to gore before– mitmol shilshom.  Mitmol shilshom means there are patterns that can be assessed and interrupted if only we would have  the chutzpah to do so.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice…well, we know how this goes.  Yes of course, in this instance, the ox has to be put down; but as the Torah notes, the owner is the one who allowed the ox to “shoot.”  

I do recognize that there is an existential angst plaguing our world, and it may very well be the cause of violent outbursts against the most vulnerable.  And there is no question that a country with more guns than people makes the worst outcomes all the more possible.  But how is it that if God forbid a child got drunk at your home, and suffered a horrible accident there or once he had left, that the laws are crystal clear that you, the homeowner, can be held liable; but if your unguarded, loaded weapon is used to cause terrible damage to others, that you cannot be held liable in most states and in most situations?  

Come on…one of the greatest gifts God gave us is memory and accountability.  It is a completely foreseeable outcome for your unprotected, loaded weapon to cause horrific damage by virtue of its accessibility.  Let’s stop pretending we didn’t know that this ox, which has shown us what terrible damage it can wreak, is capable of goring again and again until it is stopped. 

Fri, July 19 2024 13 Tammuz 5784