Friday, March 20, 2009

Lesson 4 Recap:

Thank you for attending our fourth lesson of You Be The Judge II. Here’s a quick recap of the session:

Going Beyond the Letter of the Law

Our lesson began with a discussion of the ethical and the legal. In general, a judge’s role is mainly to determine guilt and enforce legal principles. The Jewish system, on the other hand, sees a judge as a mentor as well, and the Talmud discusses the importance of acting beyond the letter of the law. In addition, a Biblical verse instructs a person to “do that which is right and good in the eyes of G-d (Deuteronomy 6:18).” Thus, in the Jewish tradition, ethics and law are deeply connected.

In this lesson, we discussed a particular instance in which sages legislated compliance with higher legal standards which is referred to as bar metsra. When a landowner is selling a plot of land, he has the moral obligation to offer it first to neighboring landowners. The Talmud reasons that a potential buyer could easily purchase a different lot at a similar price. However a neighbor might have a vested interest in owning the adjoining lot, since it is burdensome owning and caring for scattered properties. Thus, decency dictates that the neighbor be given the opportunity to meet the purchase price of the lot. A buyer who neglects to provide a neighbor this right can be taken to a rabbinic courts and penalized.

Cases Involving the Right of First Refusal

After studying the Talmudic passage about bar metsra, we discussed a similar case in American law in which purchasers bought a property while neglecting to get a waiver from a neighbor with first refusal rights. In that case, because four years had passed since the purchase of the property and because the neighbors with the rights of first refusal had already verbally indicated that they did not intend to purchase the property, the new owners were allowed to keep the house.

We also reviewed a case brought before a Jewish court and the ruling of Rabbi Moshe Sofer. This quandary focused on a house seized from Moshe by secular courts because of outstanding debts and awarded to Yehudah, who was first in line to collect. Yehudah felt compassion for the elderly Moshe, though, and allowed him to remain in the house free of charge. Moshe’s neighbor Dan argued that Yehudah had no rights to the property and that he wished to exercised his rights as the bar metsra and evict Moshe in order to claim the house for himself. The rabbi pointed out that whole principle of bar metsra is not based on neighborly rights, but rather the dictum to do, “that which is right and good.” Rabbis are often forced to competing priorities and differing perspectives. In accordance with this principle and judging the particulars of the situation, he ruled against such an eviction.

Bar Metsra: A Mystical View

In previous lessons, we discussed the mystical truth of a person’s connection to the divine sparks embedded in his or her possessions. Everything in the world occurs by hashgacha pratis, Divine Providence. Thus, when the divine sparks connected to two people are found in close proximity to one another, it means that the sparks are related to one another as well as to their respective owners.

Our lesson concluded with a story from the Talmud in which the angels protested G-d giving the Torah to the Jewish Nation. They claimed that according to the principle of bar metsra, the Heavens were physically closer to G-d, and they should thus be first in line to receive such a treasure. The Alshich commented that the angels were only interested in the spiritual dimensions of the Torah and not its physical components, since they had no connection to physical life. Moshe responded with two nuances of the bar metsra principle: first of all, since it is a great inconvenience for a seller to divine his property and sell it in different parts, a neighbor cannot put forth this principle to claim just one portion of the property. Second, if two buyers wish to acquire the same property, one for housing and the other for farming, the former takes precedence. Since the purpose of the Torah is to build a “dwelling place” in the world for G-d, and since this is done through the physical mitzvot, the Jewish People’s claim to the Torah outweighs that of the angels.

Thank you again for joining, and I very much look forward to seeing you next week for lesson three.

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