Exodus Of Tractors and Tolerance
Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18
The year was 1892, and John Froelich had just invented the first gasoline-powered tractor in Froelich, Iowa. Up until this moment, agricultural production required heavy lifting and large animals, namely horses, mules, and oxen. I grew up surrounded by farms, but not on one myself. My grandpa, however, grew up on a farm, surrounded by Yiddish-speaking immigrants who didn’t know from English nor farming. But there were horses, there were oxen, and there was a biblical reality still very much in his purview.
Parashat Mishpatim introduces the concept of a goring ox, a farm animal which in this case causes death to a person.
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)
These texts ultimately engage with the culpability of the owner. If the ox is not known to gore, the owner is spared while the ox is killed. If the owner however was aware of the ox’s habit to gore, the owner is liable and put to death along with the ox.
This concept is closer to us than we may realize. When I was bit by a dog last year, I was introduced to my township’s “three bites and you’re out” rule. We are responsible for the animals in our care and their fate rests in our ability to manage them.
The Mishnah in Bava Kamma discusses the case of the goring ox at length: expanding on the biblical text, limiting the fate of the owner to financial penalty, and creating the categories of an ox of “attested danger” (in the habit of goring), and an “innocuous” ox (one not in the habit of goring). I can only imagine that on my grandpa’s farm, there were animals safe to be near as well as those one would rather keep distance from.
Within this discussion of damages and death from an animal, our Mishnah asks an implicit question: What’s more dangerous than a goring ox?
The legal status of a person is always that of an attested danger. Therefore, whether the damage was unintentional or intentional, whether he was awake while he caused the damage or asleep, whether he blinded another’s eye or broke vessels, he must pay the full cost of the damage. (Mishnah Bava Kamma 2:6)
In the midst of this discussion about danger and animals, the Mishnah reminds us to look in the mirror every once in a while as if to say, “We humans are the ultimate version of the goring ox.” Though unlike the animal, this classification is communal; it rests on us all regardless of our individual habits and proclivities. And despite this scarlet letter of a designation attached to us all, a few tractates later in the same order of the Mishnah, Shammai is quoted in Pirkei Avot as saying: Receive all people with a pleasant countenance (Pirkei Avot 1:15b).
What makes us human is our ability to recognize and ultimately transcend the things we carry. And that is a lifelong journey of neither tractor nor technology, but of tenderness and tolerance.
Max Edwards, HC Rabbinical School ’21, is the Associate Rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ.