Moral Vigilance

“A human being is always regarded as potentially dangerous.”

BT Bava Kamma 26a


Can we trust ourselves?


When people we trust behave in a way that is morally degrading or suspect, we begin to wonder if this is the fate of all of humanity. Jews do not believe that we are born to sin or that we cannot escape evil. But we do believe that evil is seductive and that no one, no matter how pious or upright can let down his or her guard. Many mussar writers, those who were concerned with character building and one’s relationship to God, depict this struggle as a battle of good versus evil. One must always be prepared to go to battle. We may not believe in original sin, but we do believe in the importance of constant vigilance. In Ecclesiastes 7:20, we read that, “There is not one on earth who is always righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”


In the Talmud, an ox is assumed to do damage in one of three typical ways: with its teeth, with its feet and with its horns – in the normal act of eating, in the normal act of moving, and in the act of goring. While the first two behaviors are expected, the third indicates that this animal can be angered and will respond when provoked with destructive intentions. In everyday circumstances, we assume that an ox is a “tam” – generally innocent and that when it does damage to property or other animals or people, it is behaving unusually. But if an ox gores three times, its status changes, and it is regarded as always suspect of damage. Its owner, therefore, must have extra oversight of its behavior and assume that unchecked, it will do damage and he or she will be responsible.


When it comes to human beings, the Talmud assumed that we are always suspect, always potentially capable of danger and thus require extra vigilance all of the time. The animal has to “prove” that he is capable of violence. With humans we know that there may be strains and tensions just beneath the surface that require observation and protection. Some translate the expression “adam muad le’olam” as “A human being is always under warning” or “A human being is always responsible for his or her actions.” The mishna which elaborates on the expression continues to state the parameters of this assumption, “whether he damages accidentally or purposely, awake or asleep. If someone blinded his friend or broke his vessels he pays full damages.” We assume that human beings act with higher levels of self-awareness and can then hold them liable when they fail.


In the 16th century code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, this principle is elaborated: “It is forbidden to damage another person’s property. If one caused damage, even though he did not personally benefit from it, he is obligated to provide total compensation, whether it was inadvertent or even beyond his control” [Hoshen Mishpat 378:1].


We watch over ourselves and create fences to protect us from our worst selves. We pay attention to our bad habits, our aggressive tendencies, our withdrawal from relationships and our moods so that we can do something about them.


On his deathbed, the great sage Rabbi Eliezer was approached by his disciples. They surrounded him and asked him to teach them one final sliver of wisdom that would encompass all of his moral teachings. His answer: “Be mindful of each other’s honor, and when you pray, remember before Whom you are standing.” These were not complex words of Torah. He offered them simple advice. The best way to guard against personal failings is to focus on the honor of others and the honor of God. This kind of intention makes us smaller and more humble in the presence of the other and the Other.


Humility is the handmaiden of virtue. We can only protect our best selves by placing safeguards against our worst selves.


What safeguards have you put in place to protect yourself from wrongdoing?


Shabbat Shalom