Watching Out for the Ox That Gores

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In this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim we continue the theme of last week’s: the revelation at Sinai. Having journeyed out of Egyptian slavery, the Israelites are now at Mount Sinai where Moses is to receive the laws. Mishpatim means “laws” and the portion is a collection of different laws and practices that we are to follow, some ethical, and some ritual.

This is in many ways the final stage of the Exodus. Having been enslaved for generations, the Israelites had become accustomed to one way of being—they were a society whose lives were controlled by others. Freedom now is not just the liberation from the chains of bondage, it is the ability to form a new society to maintain and perpetuate that freedom. That is the meaning of Sinai—a new covenant, a new set of guidelines that will govern the people in the creation of a new society.

Many aspects of this new society is rooted in the past experience of the Israelites. This portion contains the oft-repeated, important dictum “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the biblical version of “never forget”—our experience in the past must inform our present and future behavior. We are to be ever mindful of where oppression exists in our world, and strive to combat it. It is a fundamental Jewish ethic. (And one, in this day and age, especially important to recall.)

Another ethic can be found in the passage of “the goring ox:”

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, 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 21:28-29)

In other words, if your ox gores someone to death, you are not liable for damages. But if you knew your ox was in the habit of goring, and it then gores someone to death, then you are liable. And, since the Torah proscribes capital punishment, the owner of the ox is put to death. It is as if you were directly responsible for the murder.

It seems like a harsh punishment, especially for something one’s animal did. For those of us who have pets or spend time around animals, no matter how domesticated animals are, their behavior can at times be unpredictable. I have the dog and cat scratches to prove it.

But there is an understanding in the text to which we need to pay heed. In the Torah text, the understanding of the scenario in this case is that the ox owner knew that the ox was a threat to others, yet did not do anything to mitigate that threat: “its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it.” That is why the liability rests with the owner. Not because they had the bad luck to have their ox act like an ox, but because they knew this was a possibility and did nothing to prevent potential harm.

The Torah here is giving us an important lesson in legal liability, for one, but also in general responsibility. For if we know of a potentially dangerous situation, action or actor and do nothing to prevent it, then we are responsible for any harm that comes from it. Things are going to happen, of course, the idea of having complete control is an illusion. But we do have the power to mitigate harm, to resist damaging powers, to counter threats.

We can apply this to the individual realm, and we can apply it to the communal realm as well. As the modern theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, when it comes to issues of communal justice, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We may not cause harm ourselves, but if we know of harm being done, we are responsible to seek to stop it. The first step is to educate ourselves, the second is to act on that knowledge.

The law of the goring ox provides a corollary to the famous dictum about not oppressing the stranger. For in connecting the text to our present day, one question we must ask ourselves is, “who is the stranger who needs to be saved from oppression?”

And at the same time, another question we must ask ourselves is, “what are the dangerous oxen that need to be kept at bay?”

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