This week's Torah portion (Mishpatim) deals with the laws of animals that damage other people's animals or property (1).
Say, for example, your domesticated usually well-behaved dog goes berserk and it suddenly attacks and bites another person's dog in a public place. What's the law?
For the first three incidents, says the Torah, the owner of the dog pays for only half of the damage. Since it is unusual for the dog to let lose and bite somebody, the owner of the dog was not expected to be vigilant against it. Therefore, he is not deemed completely responsible for the loss and he splits the loss with the owner of the wounded dog.
This is true only for the first three incidents. After three incidents of such aggression, it is now established that this dog is of a destructive nature and the owner is expected to guard his dog and is fully responsible for all damages done as a result of his failure to guard it (2).
Is "Repentance" Possible?
How about reorientation? Can a dog, or a bull or sany other animal that went astray, resume their original status of innocence?
Yet, says the Talmud (3). This can be achieved in two ways. Either the owner rigorously trains his animal until its disposition is transformed from an aggressor to a restful animal.
Another option, states the Talmud, is to sell the animal or grant it as a gift to another person. With a new owner and new patterns and schedules, the Halacha (Jewish law) assumes the animal, coming from a species that is usually domesticated and well behaved, to be nonviolent until it is proven destructive again (4).
The Psychological Dimension
We pointed out numerous times that each law of the Torah contains in addition to a concrete, physical interpretation, also a psychological and spiritual rendition. This is one of the primary functions of the Jewish mystical tradition -- Kabbalah and Chassidism -- to explain the metaphysical meaning behind each law and Mitzvah of the Torah and the Talmud.
How can we apply the above-mentioned set of laws to our personal lives?
The Mystical Animal
Each of us possesses an animal within, an earthly and mundane consciousness that seeks self-preservation and self-enhancement. In the Jewish tradition, in contrast to some other traditions, the human animal is not seen as inherently evil and destructive, only as potentially evil and destructive.
Originally, when we are born, the animal within our psyche is innocent and even cute, like a cute little puppy. Its primary goal is merely to preserve its existence, to gratify its natural quests, and to enjoy a good and comfertable life. However, if our animal consciousness is not educated, cultivated and refined, this cute innocent animal can become a self-centered beast; sometimes the beast can turn into a monster, prone to destroy itself and others in its quest for self-enhancement and self-aggrandizement.
Many people's animals do indeed become, at one point or another, damaging forces, causing pain and disaster to themselves or to others. Yet there are two categories of damaging human animals. One who's moments of aggression are seen as unusual deviations, and one in whom these destructive patterns become common behavior.
In cases where the animal is generally moral and decent and its act of destruction is an unusual anomaly, the Torah states, we ought to be more understanding of the "owner" of the animal. Nobody is entitled to gore or bite another human being ever, yet practically speaking we need to remember that even the most gentle husband could lose himself and raise his voice in rage and even the most loving woman may, in a moment of stress, make an obnoxious commentl. It is painful, mends must be made, but its not the end of the world.
As long as the offender acknowledges his\her wrongdoing and accepts accountability for it, understanding and forgiveness should follow.
But, if the incidents of abuse and destruction persists -- for example, if a husband continuously shouts at his spouse or children, or a person in leadership position shatters the lives of people under his control -- this behavior should never be condoned. We are dealing with an animal that has turned into a destructive beast and must be stopped immediately.
Yet, how does such an animal return to its original innocent status? How does an animal gone wild regain the trust of the people it has hurt so badly?
Two Paths to Recovery
Two roads are available.
The first is a rigorous process of self-refinement, in which the animal learns to confront and challenge its deepest fears and urges and to de-beast its abusive character.
Yet, even before you manage to work through all of the dark chambers of your wild animal, the teachings of Judaism present another alternative as well: To change the jurisdiction of the animal.
Take your animal and submit it to the property of G-d. Even before elevating your animal to a higher realm, surrender it to a higher reality. Take your rage, your addictions, your depression, and your fear and submit them to G-d. A dangerous beast may turn into a delightful soul.
(This essay is based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
presented during the holiday of Sukkos 1987 (5))
1) Exodus 21:35-36 and Rashi ibid. From Talmud, tractate Bava Kama.
2) Such an animal is called in the Talmud a Muad, in contrast to a Tam, which is the title granted to a domesticated animal before it has attacked three times.
There is an interesting argument among Talmudic commentators, if an animal that gores three times is deemed by Jewish law as having become of a destructive nature, or that its aggressive pattern of its behavior demonstrates that it has always been of such a disposition, we were merely unaware of it (Acharonim to Bava kama 2b.) This debate has some interesting implications, particularly when we review this law from a spiritual and psychological perspective, discussed below.
3) See Bava Kama 14a; pp. 39-40. Rambam Hilchos Nizkei Mamon 6:6-7.
4) Though this option is disputed in the Talmud (Bava Kama 40b), Maimonodies (ibid.) the view mentioned above as the final law.
5) Likkutei Sichos vol. 36 pp. 102-108.