A short reflection on this week's Torah reading, and the problem of wild beasts, fears, suffering and inequality.
This week’s Torah Portion, Mishpatim, is concerned with animals. If you let yours graze on someone else’s land you should pay for it. If your animal kills someone else’s animal you are liable for the damages. These laws feature farm animals, but later we hear: If you are looking after someone else’s animal and it dies on your watch,
“if it was torn by wild beasts, you need to bring evidence, for an animal wildly torn you need not pay damages” (Exodus 22:12).
It is for good reason that any claims about wild beasts need evidence. Even in a world where dangers are real and plentiful, it is our imaginations that sometimes run wild. The exact expression the Torah here uses for “torn by wild beasts”, Tarof yitareif, emphatically torn, echoes one previous episode in the Torah. In Genesis, chapter 37, Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit, go off for a bite, and return to an empty pit. So…
…they took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a kid, and dipped the tunic in the blood. They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said,
“We found this. Please examine it. Is it your son’s tunic or not?”
He recognized it and said, “My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a best!”. (JPS translation)
Emphatically torn, tarof tarof, with that same doubling of the verb.
When looking for wild beasts, we might instead look to collective, cowardly oppression and violence.
In 1989 five black New Yorker teenagers from families without much money were arrested for the brutal rape of a woman left in a coma. It was reported that they and their friends had been “wilding”. Donald Trump took out adverts in papers calling for them to get the death penalty- even though the crime, however brutal, wouldn’t have technically brought the death penalty in any state. As it happened, after years in prison, they were acquitted and paid damages for a miscarriage of justice.
We talk about wild beasts when we want to identify real fears, suffering and inequality with a tangible Other that we can lock up, or wipe out, or keep out of our country. Problem solved. More personally we can go slightly wild ourselves ranting about supposedly intractable problems with others, family or colleagues.
If we blame our real challenges, personal or political, on wild beasts or insufferable people, we better bring evidence. Or we are faced with taking responsibility, reflecting on ourselves, our errors and strengths and what we can do; otherwise we have to address social and personal ills with humility, understanding, love and compassion. Wild beast are very dangerous.
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.