Dina demalchuta dina, the law of the land is the law, is one of the most famous, far-reaching and even revolutionary laws of the Talmud. At its most basic level it requires Jews to be law-abiding citizens of whatever country they find themselves in. Dina demalchuta dina allowed us to survive and thrive as a people through our historical travels. I shudder to think the fate of the Jew had we not accepted the law of the land as part of our Torah obligations. Yet beyond its historic and social importance, its legal implications are enormous.
The distinction between a ganav and a gazlan is fairly well known. The former in trying to hide his crime pays double the amount stolen whereas the latter consistent in his fear of neither G-d nor man must return that which he stole and is given no further fine or punishment. Somewhat less well known is a third type of thief, one who denies under oath that they have stolen something only to admit later to their crime.
Doing teshuva is hard work. Sinning can be fun, easy to do, financially beneficial and habit forming. Change is hard. It requires hard work, commitment, dedication and sacrifice. And such is when we are talking about changing our actions. Changing a character trait so that we will be less tempted to sin helping make our teshuva sustainable is so much harder. Becoming less materialistic, less anger prone, more generous and more compassionate takes years of hard work. And there are no guarantees of success.
One of the revolutions of Judaism was its democratization. No person is inherently superior to another--all are created in the same Divine image. One may not sacrifice the life of the criminal in order to save the life of the leading rabbi of the generation.
“Even though he repays him he is not forgiven until he asks him.” (Bava Kamma 92a) In our last couple of postings we have discussed the five categories of damages one must pay if one assaults another. These can easily add up to many, many thousands of dollars, possibly more. Yet such payments are not enough. One must ask for forgiveness from the aggrieved, something that has become part of our Yom Kippur preparations.
In our last post we discussed Rabbi Yehuda’s (rejected) view that the blind are exempt from mitzvoth. This exemption actually brought great joy to Rav Yosef. Being blind himself he was exempt from mitzvoth yet he performed them voluntarily. He surmised that he would thereby receive a greater reward for being meticulous in observance of mitzvoth even though there was no obligation to do so. After all he went beyond the call of duty.
Rav Yaakov Ettlinger in his collection of responsa (Binyan Tzion #172) discusses the powerful and scary question of whether one has to give up one’s life rather than embarrass somebody in public. If so, “whitening someone’s face” would join adultery, idolatry and murder as one of the cardinal sins of Judaism.
Masechet Bava Kamma begins by describing one’s responsibility to pay for damages caused by one’s animals. It then discusses damages one indirectly causes through leaving objects in the public square or causing a fire. In the above cases the owner must pay for damages caused but no more.
This is followed by a discussion of the laws relating to a thief where one normally pays double the value of the object stolen though in a case of a stolen and subsequently sold or slaughtered ox one would pay five time the value of the animal.
“Rav Yossi said: It would have been proper for the Torah to be given by Ezra had Moshe not preceded him.” (Sanhedrin 21b) It was Moshe who prepared the Jewish people for their first entry to the Land and it was Ezra some 1.000 years later who led them to the land when they returned from the Babylonian exile. And just as Moshe made numerous rabbinic enactments to prepare the people for their new environment so did Ezra as the Jewish nation entered a new epoch.
When opportunity knocks, answer – you may not get a second chance. Or to quote the language of our Sages “a closed door does not easily [re]open.” (Bava Kamma 80b) One must always be ready to immediately take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. My father z”l would often say that Mazal, can be read as an acronym for makom, place, zman, time and laasot, doing. Being in the right place at the right time is not enough, one must then “do” to have mazal.