“We rely on the presumption that an agent fulfills his agency.”
What is so interesting about reading the Talmud each day is how it extends one concept to another and then another. One moment we are reading about tithing and then the next about elephants that carry food on their back and then by extension we find ourselves discussing human agency and the trust that comes from carrying out actions on behalf of another. Today’s Daf Yomi continues the discussion on agency from the previous day and if we should trust without verification that an agent fulfills his duty. There are some Rabbis that are of the “trust but verify” school while others believe that if a person says he will do something, we should believe that he will.
The two perspectives are put forward by Rav Yeḥiel and Rav Naḥman. Rav Yehiel said that “there is a legal presumption that an agent fulfills his agency,” while Rav Nahman countered that we should not “rely on the presumption that an agent fulfills his agency; rather one must actually see the agent performing his mission.” In other words, Rav Nahman is making a case for trust but verify. There is a distinction between Torah laws and Rabbinic laws, which we have learned are often more stringent in order to build a fence around the former in order to protect against transgression. The Rabbinic perspective is one of “show me.”
Rav Sheshet disputes the distinction between Torah and Rabbinic law and says that in both cases we should presume that an agent will fulfill his duty. He uses the example of an offering of an omer of grain. (According to the internet, an omer is the equivalent of one US cup, or the amount needed to make a loaf of bread.) The Torah prohibits eating from this crop of grain until a sacrifice has occurred on the second day of Passover. The Rav is of the school that believes that there is a presumption that all the required sacrifices have occurred as required, the agents have fulfilled their duty and it is permitted to use the grain in question. We are told that the priests in the temple are responsible for making sure all the laws are followed because “it may be assumed that they have performed the mission entrusted to them.”
There is a distinction made between those who hold special positions, such as priests and ḥaverim, who are members of a special group that withhold meticulously religious laws. Like the differences discussed in today’s reading, we encounter different forms of agency in our own lives. We have friends who we count on to be there for us, and they usually are. It is a hard lesson I learned over the course of my life to be lenient like some of the Rabbis in the Talmud when they are not always there for me because their lives get in the way or they have other obligations. It is difficult to sometimes be accepting of what might be imperfect agency on the behalf of those we love.
And then there is the other type of agency, where we turn to professionals to carry out special duties for us, such as investing our money and executing legal documents. We mostly have to trust the people we interact with are professionals and have been vetted by the firms they are associated with. One of the most horrific examples of a failure to uphold one’s duty to investors is the crime perpetrated by Bernard Madoff against his clients. He never invested the funds that they entrusted with him. He bankrupted charities, universities, retirees, and his crime cut deeply into the Jewish community where he built strong ties through religious affinity. There are rules and regulations that protect against such crimes, but Madoff managed his investment fund outside the regulated industry. He built a veneer of trust and respectability around him that allowed his clients to identify with him and believe he was an upright agent. There are people that have never recovered from losing their lifelong nest eggs.
And then there are the politicians who we elect to be the agents of our constitution and laws. We rely on these people to keep their word and do the right thing for their country. We expect them to rise to the occasion of the office and to act in the best interest of everyone, not just the constituents who elected them, and uphold the laws of the land. This sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? When those who are elected do not always honor their promise to uphold their pledge to the nation, who can we trust?