And if a person borrows [an animal] from his neighbor and it breaks a limb or dies, if its owner is not with him, he shall surely pay. (Shemos 22:13)
The Torah is not a history book and neither is it a law book. Rather it is a book of teaching which directs a man to fulfill his responsibilities to HASHEM, his neighbor and yes, himself. The Torah gifts us with formulas for figuring out when we are obligated to pay. There is nothing arbitrary about the Torah’s approach to determining who pays whom. It is not a guilt trip but a reality check. Otherwise, life and situations can become easily clouded and confused even by well meaning people. How so?
Let’s hearken back to an old-time principle mentioned explicitly in the Ten Commandments. It’s not easy to understand what this law is doing there, especially in the top five. Honoring one’s father and mother seems to be a primary instinct that comes installed in almost everyone. I can remember from my youth that the most brutal fights were prompted by a statement about somebody else’s mother or father. That was the line in the sand that nobody dared cross without expecting an aggressive response. So why the command?
Here are two approaches. If you find yourself walking in a big city like Manhattan and you are people watching, you might notice two different types of pedestrians. Some people walk with their heads facing forward while others have their heads vaulted to the sky where they are focusing on the towering heights of the skyscrapers. Now who are these two distinct groups? The ones who walk along casually looking out horizontally are native New Yorkers. The ones with their eyes looking up are obviously tourists.
The ones who live in the big city all the time hardly notice or appreciate the enormity of the structures around them, because they grew up with them all their lives. So too it’s hard to recognize the virtues of parents, even truly great parents. They are part of the furniture of our daily existence. We become inured to the magnitude of their specialness.
I remember whispering to a little boy at a Shabbos table that he should take care to listen to the Rosh HaYeshiva when he asks him to sit in the seat that was assigned to him. The six-year-old looked up at me and said, “Rosh HaYeshiva?! He’s my father!”
Secondly, there’s a well-known phenomenon. It may be more-true about me or any of us to a greater and lesser degree. The ones who pay the least complain the most. Why is that so? When we will understand this then we will also understand why the Torah needs to command us to honor our parents.
The psychological principle is that people don’t like to feel indebted. Staring at bills is very uncomfortable. Who do we owe more in life than our parents!? Who has done more for us than our parents!? To whom are we more indebted than our parents!? So, we subconsciously and foolishly look for faults in those individuals and institutions to whom we owe the most in order to void, cancel, and unbridle ourselves from the debt we owe.
People find minor faults to excuse themselves from the need to pay. The ones who pay the least end up complaining the most, so as to obviate the need to pay. It must seem cheaper that way.
The Chasam Sofer was out of town and when he returned one of his students told him the tragic news that somebody in the city was spreading terrible rumors about him while he was gone. The Chasam immediately sat down and started contemplating deeply. His student asked what he was thinking about. The Chasam Sofer said, “I’m trying to remember what kindliness I did for this person that now he hates me so.”
Such is the misapplied genius of the human psyche bent on escaping feelings of indebtedness. This all applies as well to the obligations we have to our Creator. It’s another reason why more than it’s true that happy people are more grateful, grateful people are more-happy. The less one pays the more one seeks reasons not to pay, and the more he finds. That’s way too costly!