Are we borrowers or guardians?

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Mishpatim

When one looks at the abundance of mitzvahs in the Torah, a common question arises: Are these commandments supposed to make sense to me? Depending on the person, you may find opposite inclinations, ranging from views like, “The commandments are purely spiritual laws, reserved for faith,” to the opposite stance: “Of course they should be logical and understood — they are given to human beings in this world, not to angels!” In the Torah view, however, the answer largely depends on which category of laws is under scrutiny.

There are three general categories of mitzvahs, usually translated as: “statutes, laws and testimonies.” Statutes refer to those commands that defy logic — their value or purpose is entirely spiritual. For example, dietary rules such as not mixing milk and meat and other matters of keeping kosher are not health guidelines — any physical benefits are mere side-effects — but have some deeper impact on the person’s soul.

The opposite extreme — logical laws that can be (and often are) conceived without ever reading the Torah — is the category called mishpatim. Indeed, many moral systems and societies have arrived at similar conclusions. Examples include: Don’t murder; torts; business ethics. The third category, “testimonies,” lies somewhere in between: They are not intuitive, yet after reading them, they make perfect sense (e.g. we eat matzo on Pesach to commemorate the experience of our ancestors).

Each of these categories has advantages. Observing the purely irrational laws, for example, nourishes our simple faith, a commitment that is not clouded by personal analysis. The purely rational laws, mishpatim, require that one sharpen the mind and appreciate the wisdom and logic behind the Torah’s instructions. In this case, it is not enough just to observe them blindly — they must be understood.

Logical laws

The title of this week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim. As the title suggests, it contains the bulk of rational commandments. Among them, in Chapter 22, the Torah discusses four cases wherein an owner entrusts his animal to another for safekeeping or usage, but where something goes wrong (e.g. damage, death or theft).

These days the case would look more like this: Before you go on vacation, you leave your new laptop with a friend for safekeeping. When you return, he tells you, “I’m sorry but my house was robbed, and your laptop was among the stolen items.” Is your friend liable for the loss? Or you borrow your friend’s car for the day and when you finish shopping, you notice that someone has hit the parked car and driven off. As a borrower, are you liable for the damage?

The Talmud classifies the Torah verses into four general cases: the shomer chinam (an unpaid guardian); the shomer sacher (paid by the owner to watch an object); the socher (renter); and the sho’el (the borrower). The various liabilities are then discussed. The simple logic behind these laws is based on the amount of benefit to the user of the object. The borrower, who derives all the benefit, naturally has the strictest expectations of supervision and the highest liability for damages — he must pay in all cases. The opposite extreme is the unpaid custodian — “all the benefit belongs to the owner” — so the custodian is the least responsible. The liability of the paid custodian, wherein both the owner and user benefit, falls somewhere in between.

The ruling on a renter is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, which prompts a debate among the Talmudic sages regarding liability: Is the renter treated more like the paid custodian or the unpaid?

The conclusion involves a thorough analysis wherein conceptually a renter is most like a borrower; the primary purpose is to use the object, not simply watch it. But since the renter pays for this benefit — value is exchanged — he cannot be completely liable (i.e. for unavoidable accidents) and so is bumped to the same status as a paid custodian.

Layers of lessons

While the main goal of studying these laws is to uncover the rationale on the practical surface level, there are also multiple layers of lessons. Discussions of business dealings, for example, contain subtle messages in other areas. Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the 16th-century scholar from Prague (also known as the Shelah ha-Kadosh), has a beautiful parallel of these four categories on a deeper level where he blends the legal and mystical interpretations:

We visit this world for a short span. And during our lifetime, our bodies, our children and our assets are entrusted to us by “the owner” of the world — the Creator. Based on our attitude and motivation, we may fall into one of the four abovementioned categories along with the respective liabilities:

Some people think (and act) more like borrowers — we are here in this world only to benefit, partaking of its benefits without seeking to give anything back. The other extreme, the noblest character, thinks more like unpaid guardians, who give without expecting anything in return — doing the right things purely “for the sake of Heaven.” This attitude is reminiscent of the statement in Ethics of Our Fathers (1:3): “Be not like workers who serve their master in order to receive a reward, but like those who serve without any expectation.”

Other people, like the renter or paid custodian, fall somewhere in between — performing good deeds while expecting something in exchange. For example, someone gives charity, but with the underlying expectation to receive public recognition or divine compassion. Others make deals with G-d: if they receive certain blessings: They promise to be a better person. While all good actions remain positive, regardless of motivation, the ultimate spiritual goal is to progress from the mindset of a borrower in this world — using without giving back — to that of an unpaid guardian, someone who acts out of duty and purpose.

Final takeaway

Someone once came to seek advice from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He was struggling with losing his patience with his kids and often became angry when they misbehaved. The Rebbe asked him, “Would you act the same way if you were watching your neighbor’s kids?”

“Of course not,” the man answered.

The Rebbe then went on to explain how he should shift his perspective: “Think about the fact that they are not just your children, but G-d’s children — precious souls who are entrusted to you for safekeeping in this world. When you view yourself more as a custodian, it will become easier.”

In short, many character defects stem from the instinctive outlook that we are the center of the universe, entitled to a certain experiences and comforts. As such, our interactions with others in the outside world are often based on what we can gain — and when things don’t go as desired, we become easily frustrated. But if we shift our view to that of a guardian wherein all our resources are gifts from above, entrusted to be handled properly and selflessly, then both our spiritual liability and physical productivity improve dramatically.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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