Sunday, September 5, 2010


When studying long legal sections of gemara I sometimes feel the spiritual core of the teaching is missing. This is not to dismiss or denigrate the legal portions. The extended discussions about returning lost objects or caring for goods left in your care have revealed important aspects of these seemingly mundane transactions.

Our current study in Baba Metzia concerns the issue of guardianship, the responsibility of a guardian to care for perishable goods entrusted to him. A midrash on Parshat Netzavim seems to parallel our current passage. I wonder if the midrashic author might have had our passage in mind as he created his parable. I fell that it adds a spiritual dimension to the legal passages we are studying. See what you think.

Our mishna asks how a guardian, one who is appointed to oversee someone else’s goods, may deal with depreciation, specifically a product that might deteriorate quickly.
“When one deposits fruit (or other perishables) with his fellow, even if they are rotting, the guardian may not sell them. Rabban Shimon ben Gamiliel says: He should sell them before a court because he is considered as one who is returning a lost object to its owner. (Baba Metzia 38a)

The two opinions are not hard to understand. Rav Kahana offers a straight forward explanation in the gemara: “owners prefer their own goods more than nine measures of someone elses.” Presumably the owners understand that their product is subject to depreciation, fruit may rot or vermin may eat at it, and would have given instructions if they wanted the guardian to do more than watch over it. The task is simply to protect the product. Rabban Shimon ben Gamiliel, by contrast, believes the guardian is obliged to proactively protect the value of the goods under his supervision. If the guardian needs to sell the goods in order to preserve their value, the court serves to protect the interests of both the owner and the guardian.

At the end of Moses’ closing speech to the people he entrusts the Torah into their care. He reminds the people that if they listen to God’s voice, as heard in the Torah, then
the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in every work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your land, for good; for the Lord will again rejoice over you for good, as he rejoiced over your fathers. (Deuteronomy 30:9)
The text goes on to reassure the people that this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off.” (Deuteronomy 30:11)

The Midrash wonders about this commandment which is entrusted to the people. It is, to highlight the parallel with our mishnah, the product (Torah) that is deposited with the guardian (the people) and for which they are responsible to return it in good condition. The midrash underscores the fragile nature of Torah by saying: were it not for the Torah the world would have already reverted to chaos.

Here is the full passage (Deuteronomy Rabba 5:5)
FOR THIS COMMANDMENT: What commandment is this? The sages say, it is hard [to talk about because the stakes are so high].
To what may this be compared: A king had a precious stone which he entrusted to his friend. He said, Please take care and guard it properly. If you lose it you do not have the ability to repay me, nor do I have another like it. You will have sinned against me and against yourself. Act to our mutual benefit and guard it well.
Similarly Moses said to Israel, If you guard the Torah you will act for the benefit of yourselves and for me.
The midrash parallels the mishna. God has deposited the Torah, a precious and fragile product, with the people. If the Torah is not cared for the world will depreciate and return to tohu va-vohu, chaos, and will be worthless. It is the responsibility of the guardian (the Jews) to assure the quality and value of the goods and to return them to the Owner in good condition.

Is there anything to be learned from the parallel of these two passages? On the simplest level, it reminds me that there is a spiritual lining to these legal discussions. The straightforward transaction of one person entrusting another with their goods involves trust, honesty, reliability and good judgment. The legal discussion relies on the middot, the ethical qualities of the owner and the guardian. Torah teaches that these middot are spiritual qualities, developed through a life of Torah.

This parallel reinforces the idea of the covenant between Israel and God as a legal agreement, one based on mutual obligations. God gave us the Torah knowing the stakes were high. The fate of the cosmos hangs in the balance. If we are unreliable guardians, chaos will reign. If we are faithful guardians, we will all prosper. The Torah is not merely a spiritual idea or a personal practice, but a precious trust that is entwined with the whole of Creation.

This seems an appropriate topic as we approach Rosh HaShannah, the birthday of the universe. Over these Days of Awe we will renew our vows with God, return through teshuva, repentance, to fulfill our part of the bargain. My we be steadfast guardians for our good and the good of all.

L’shanna Tova Tikateyvun – May all of our readers be blessed with a good year.

© 2010, Rabbi Louis A. Rieser