Mishpatim and Shekalim
For the week of February 25, 2006 / 27 Shevat  5766
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 21:1 - 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim / 2 Kings 12:1-17


Taking Responsibility

If a fire breaks out and spreads into thornbushes so that it burns shocks of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution. (Shemot / Exodus 22:6)

A common area of confusion today is over the issue of taking responsibility. It seem to me that intention has become intimately tied to whether or not we need to take responsibility for something. When we say or do something that hurts another person, we often say things like, "I am sorry, but I didn't mean it." We regret the person's hurt, while at the same time we release ourselves from responsibility, since we didn't intend to harm them.

The verse we are looking at this week gives direction to a specific situation where if someone starts a fire, which somehow ruins someone else's field, then the person who started the fire, must pay for the loss. There is no reference here to intention. Making restitution is not only called for when someone destroys someone else's property on purpose. Whatever caused the fire to get out of control, it is the person who made the fire in the first place who is responsible.

This perspective on responsibility finds its way into modern legal matters. For example, in the places I have lived, when a car is hit from behind, it is always the driver in the rear who is at fault. We may want to argue that the driver in the front should also bear some responsibility, or think that other things in the situation, such as road conditions, should be taken into account, but they are not. The law puts all the responsibility on the driver in the rear, since he or she must take every aspect of the situation into account, leaving sufficient room at all times in order to avoid an accident.

I am aware that there are situations when it is very difficult to determine who should bear responsibility for a mishap, but we can derive from this directive that when we use things that are potentially dangerous and cause harm, we must take responsibility when things go wrong.

Giving thought to this causes me to be aware of how this can apply to our relationships. When we hurt another person, we can be too quick to absolve ourselves of responsibility, because we might determine that the other person has misunderstood us or is just too sensitive. Yet the fact is most, if not all people, whether they admit it or not, are fragile and easily hurt. While there are those who get offended easier than others, does that mean we have should take no responsibility for the wounds they suffer as a result of our words and actions?

This message is not for the wounded ones. Please don't take what I am saying and throw it in the face of someone who has hurt you, telling them that they better take responsibility for what they have done. This message is for all of us, that we would be more careful in how we treat others. We need to be more aware of how we affect those around us and do whatever we can to avoid causing harm.

This is similar to what we read in the New Covenant scriptures:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)

While we cannot completely avoid causing pain to others, we need to take responsibility for what we ourselves say and do.

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