This week's parsha
The "That's how G‑d made me" excuse:
Why shouldn't I do whatever I want? After all, if I want it, that means that there's something inside me telling me to want it, right? I'm just being me. Isn't it natural for me to be me?
The "Sorry, I lost it" excuse:
Look, I know it's wrong. But I can't control myself. I have this violent streak in me that... well, once you start me off, I can't stop.
The "I'm special" excuse:
I'm an artist/business tycoon/holy man//commander-in-chief/heiress/scientist. I have very special talents and abilities and great things to accomplish. The regular rules don't apply to me. I can't be constrained by laws designed to keep the herd in line.
The "Little me" and "What's the use" excuse
You know, I used to care about these things and try to right the world's wrongs. But what's the point? The world is what it is, and what I do or don't do won't make much difference anyway. So I just let things take their course.
The Torah reading of Mishpatim ("Laws" -- Exodus 21-24) includes much of what can be called the Torah's "civil code" -- the laws governing criminal assault, theft, damages, loans and rentals, employer-employee relations, etc. But as the Chassidic masters repeatedly remind us, everything in Torah has both a "body" and a "soul": the most lofty or esoteric concept has a practical application, and the most technical law has a spiritual import.
Mishpatim includes the laws of the "Four Prototypes of Damages" (as the Talmud defines them) -- "the animal, the pit, the man and the fire." Technically, these describe four basic categories of damages for which a person is responsible: 1) "Animal": damage caused by one's animal or other possession (e.g., your ox gores your neighbor's cow; your goat eats up your neighbor's tomato plants); 2) "Pit": passive damage caused by one's criminal negligence (e.g., you dig a hole in the middle of the street and someone falls in and breaks a leg); 3) "Man": active, human-inflicted damages (e.g., you break his $1000 lamp or the only nose on his face); 4) "Fire": damages arising from the failure to control potentially damaging forces that are one's responsibility to control (e.g., you're burning garbage in your back yard and it spreads to your neighbor's property).
The "Four Prototypes of Damages," says the Rebbe, also describe four spiritually damaging phenomena: the tendency to blindly and indiscriminately follow our wiles and desires ("the animal"); the failure to control anger and other destructive forces in our psyche ("fire"); the delusion that everything is permitted in pursuit of a "higher" goal ("man"); and the inertia of the passive, hollowed-out soul ("the pit").
As the laws of Mishpatim warn against and prescribe the remedies for the physical "Prototypes of Damages," so does the "soul of Torah" counteract its four spiritual analogs:
Yes, our animal instincts are natural, necessary and desirable, but only when guided and directed by the higher instincts of our G‑dly soul.
Yes, volatile forces rage within us; but we have been given the responsibility, and the means, to control them.
No, our highest and most spiritual aspirations are not exempt from the rule of law. On the contrary, when they fail to submit to its higher authority, they become the cause for the greatest evils perpetrated by man.
Indeed, passivity is all too easy a rut to roll into. We must constantly remind ourselves that our actions do make a difference in G‑d's world: He created it, He entrusted us with the task to improve it, and He supplied us the resources to do so. We need only scratch the surface of our soul to uncover the faith, the will, the passion and the energy to act.