Parashat Mishpatim- "We Don’t Live In a Bubble"
Much of Parashat Mishpatim is devoted to the Torah’s code of civil law, the foundations of the Halachot pertaining to interpersonal relations and financial disputes. One of the classic laws presented in this Parasha is that of "Bor," a pit or other obstruction in the public domain (21:33). If a person digs a hole in a public area, or even if he removes the cover of a hole, such as a manhole, for example, he bears liability for damages that occur as a result. As the one who created the potentially dangerous obstruction, he is responsible to remove it – by covering the hole – and if he fails to do, then he is liable to compensate for damages that occur as a result.
The Halacha of "Bor" reflects the broader obligation to always carefully consider how our conduct and actions may affect other people. This law reminds us that we do not live in a bubble; we cannot act as we please and do whatever suits us, without concern for how this might impact upon our fellow citizens.
The great Jewish Sages went very far in applying this principle. The story is told of the Hafetz Haim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1839-1933) who was once walking with several students through a public area. He noticed a scrap of paper on the ground, and initially thought that it was from a Torah book. Immediately, he bent down to pick it up. When he saw that the page did not contain Torah material, he instinctively dropped it on the ground. A moment later, went back to pick it up.
He explained to his students that if he had left the paper on the ground, then another Jew might pass by and, like him, think that it was a page of Torah material that must not be left on the ground. It would be improper, the Hafetz Haim said, to cause another person even this slight inconvenience of bending down to pick up a strewn piece of paper unnecessarily. He therefore made a point of picking the page up off the ground.
The Hafetz Haim understood that the Halacha of "Bor" serves as a prototype for all kinds of disruptions and inconvenience that a person could cause through his conduct. Just as a person is held liable for damages caused by a hole he digs, similarly, we are to ensure not to cause any kind of harm, disturbance or inconvenience to others. The Torah instructs us to think very carefully about how our actions can potentially impact other people. We share this world with many people, and we must therefore be sensitive to their concerns at all times. As the Hafetz Haim taught us, we must avoid doing anything that could cause even minor inconvenience to others – just as we would not want others to inconvenience us.