Rabbi Joshua Buchin, Co-Dean of Students; Jewish Studies Teacher

In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, we are provided with a set of laws designed to help us live lives grounded in justice, meaning, and relationships. Among the set of laws listed in this week’s parsha are two sets of laws that speak about our responsibilities to others in instances where damage has occurred. 

When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard. When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make restitution. (Exodus 22:4-5)

These two verses become the basis for two of the four primary categories of damages developed by later Rabbis. The Rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud identify four primary types of damaging agents: the ox, the pit, the tooth, the fire. The above verses from this week’s parsha serve as the basis for the tooth (“When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land”) and for the fire (“When a fire is started and spreads to thorns”). 

The Rabbis expand on these verses in the Mishnah. For example, regarding the instance of damage caused by fire, the Rabbis write: 

If a spark flew out from under a hammer and caused damage, he is liable. If a camel laden with flax passed by in the public domain and its load of flax entered into a shop and caught fire from the storeowner’s candle and lit a large house on fire, the owner of the camel is liable. (Mishnah, Bava Kama 6:6)

These lines from the Mishnah should look familiar to current 10th-grade students. In Intro to Rabbinic Literature and Mishnah and Gemara (the two core 10th grade JS classes), students are completing an Everlab project exploring liability in Chemistry and Jewish Studies classes. In this unit, students chose a contemporary case of accidental damage and explored who was responsible by examining the scientific elements and comparing their case to the instances of liability – such as the spark and the hammer – from the Mishnah. 

Students have chosen a wide range of topics, exploring everything from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the Fukushima Daiichi accident. Students are right now completing teaching tools to explain the connections that they discovered. Teaching tools, which include modes such as podcasts, videos, posters, comics, and 3D models, allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the case and show who they feel was ultimately responsible for damages.

By exploring real-world instances of damage, students are able to understand not only the interdisciplinary nature of learning, but the deeper lesson at work in this week’s parsha: all of us have responsibilities for one another. Part of what it means to be in a community is to recognize our obligations to one another. These obligations exist not only when damage has occurred but at all times. We are all responsible for one another. Through acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion we can make our communities stronger and more meaningful. By recognizing such collective responsibility and acting accordingly, we can ultimately come to make our world a better, more fair, and more just place for all.