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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Mishpatim

Parashat Mishpatim

The Hidden Advantage of Double Payment

3005
Dedicated to the memory of
Yaakov Ben Behora
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Last year, we brought the Sefat Emet’s ethical interpretation of the laws of the sho’el (borrower). This year we will follow suit, regarding the Torah’s section on the shomer chinam (unpaid watchman).
The Torah writes: "Should a man give his friend money (kesef) or utensils (keilim) to watch and it was stolen from the house of the man, if the thief is found he must pay double" (Shemot 22:6). The basic laws of a shomer chinam are that he is exempt from payment if the object is stolen unless he was negligent in the way he watched it. He must, though, swear that he is not responsible and that he did misappropriate the object during the time he was watching it, which would make him liable for any damages that would befall the object.

The Sefat Emet gives the following, ethical interpretation of this section, based on the assumption that it is Hashem who gives these things to man to watch. "Kesef" hints at a man’s desires and will, for, like money, it enables man to carry out his plans. "Keilim" refers to a man’s body, the utensil used in actions a man does during his lifetime. Hashem entrusts man with these special items to use for his main purpose in life, to serve Hashem. The thief who desires to take the money and utensils for himself is the "yetzer hara," who tries to make man use that which he was entrusted with for improper activities.

If we are successful watchmen, we can uncover the thief and protect the welfare of our kesef v’keilim. If we do so, we will receive double payment. The Sefat Emet suggests that the best way to succeed as a "watchman" is to stay away from unnecessary pleasures, for this he considers misappropriation, which heightens our liability. On the contrary, if we dedicate ourselves to service of Hashem, then we are exempt from payment even if the thief succeeds from time to time.

The first mishna of Perek Hamafkid takes on a new dimension according to the symbolic approach to the p’sukim. If the watchman volunteers to pay for the loss of the object and then the object is found in the hands of a thief, the thief has to pay double to the watchman. The gemara points out that the watchman does not even have to actually pay in order to get the double payment, but to be willing to pay (Bava Metzia 34a). This is a hint at someone who was not successful in foiling the yetzer hara’s plot, but instead of trying to find an excuse and swear that he is not to blame, he accepts responsibility for his failure. If he willingly does teshuva, then he can reach a higher spiritual level than he started with. This concept, that when one does real teshuva, his sins become like merits, is the equivalent of the watchman’s receiving double payment.

The Sefat Emet shows us again how to derive deep, ethical lessons from any section of the Torah.


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