The story is told of 2 men in a boat when one suddenly decides to start drilling a hole underneath his seat, the other man protests – “what are you doing, we’re all going to drown”. But the man drilling his hole says “it’s none of your business, I want to drill a hole, I like drilling holes and so I’m drilling a hole on my side of the boat, under my seat, what’s it got to do with you.”
When we hear the story we all know that if the man continues drilling his hole both of them will suffer. And it’s the same in our lives, we live in relationship with other people and our actions don’t just impact us, but they impact those around us.
In this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim, we receive a whole selection of laws to govern Israelite society. And amongst them we’re given many laws that deal with our relations with other people. At one point, it says in the Torah, when a person opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit, must make restitution paying the price to the owner but keeping the dead animal. And, it says, when a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies they shall sell the live ox and divide its price. They should also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox but shall keep the dead animal.
In this way, the Torah insures that we have to be aware of how our actions can impact others. If I dig a pit, I’m responsible for insuring that it is covered up so that no one falls into it and similarly if I have an ox that is known to attack others, I have to be responsible for taking care of my ox and preventing it from causing damage to someone else’s property or someone else’s animal.
The Torah was very aware of the fact that it’s easy to be absorbed in our own world, to ignore those around us and to forget that our actions have an impact on other people. And, in this way, these laws in Mishpatim come as a reminder that we do not live in a bubble. And, that my actions have an impact on the people around me. And, I can never ignore that.
And, more than this, I have to be responsible for my actions and recognize the potential within them for good, and the potential within them to harm other people. Mishpatim tells us that we should never be the one drilling the hole in the boat, because everyone is going to suffer as a result of our actions. And it reminds us that when we do cause suffering or damage, we are the ones who have to make amends. We are the ones who have to make the restitution to the person who has lost and suffered. We do not live in a bubble. We have to be responsible for taking care of each other.