Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Mouse Psychology, Paradox and Torah Bava Metzia 40-42


Mouse Psychology 

Our Gemara on amud aleph discusses how to estimate normal depreciation and spoilage of produce, which has relevance when a watchman is returning an amount of produce deposited, but the original produce is no longer extant.  Thus, if he held 50 lbs of grain, and now is returning it, how much allowance should be made for spoilage? The Rabbis hold that the amount is dependent according to the measure, and according to the time elapsed. Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri objects. He says the amount of spoilage or loss should not vary based on the amount, rather a proportionate loss should be calculated for one pound as much as 1000.  He rhetorically asks, “And why do the mice care about how much produce the watchman is safeguarding? Don’t they eat the same amount whether it is from much produce and whether it is from little produce?”  

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri’s logic is compelling! Tosafos (ibid, “Vechi”) quoting the Yerushalmi, explains the rationale of the Rabbis, based on Mouse Psychology:  These mice are wicked. When they see a larger amount of produce, they call in their friends to join. Therefore, the more produce, the more mice, and a merely proportionate calculation would not be sufficient.

Presumably, the Yerushalmi calls the mice “wicked” because instead of merely eating what they need to survive, they also invite their friends over to party.  The Imrei Emes (Likkutim, Bava Metzia 40a) asks, elsewhere, the Gemara (Chulin 63a) says that a particular bird is called the “Chassidah”, because it does kindness (chessed) in sharing its food with peers. Why then is the mouse considered wicked for doing the same thing? The Imrei Emes offers an obvious distinction.  The Chassidah obtains her food from the wild and chooses to share it with peers, while the mouse is freeloading off private food, and then making matters worse, invites his friends to join in. The classic example of doing “chessed oif yenem’s cheshbon – doing kindness while on the backs of others.  The Bais Yisroel is said to have answered differently, while in the middle of the food scarcity of World War I.  The Chassidah immediately shares the food she finds with her friends, while the mouse only asks his friends to join in after he makes sure he has plenty of food for himself first.

This is remarkably similar to the story told in Melachim (II Kings ch. 7) about the Four Metzoraim found in the haftara reading for Parashas Metzora. In this story, we find out that Elisha the prophet predicts an end to the famine, declaring that food prices will dramatically drop within a day. Despite skepticism, his prophecy comes true. The salvation comes about from four persons smitten with tzoraas, who desperate for food, resolve to surrender to the Arameans. When they arrive at Aramean camp, expecting to be taken captive and/or killed, they find it abandoned and filled with food.  Unbeknownst to the lepers, God induced the Arameans to hallucinate an incoming army, causing them to flee in fear of an imagined attack. The lepers indulged in the spoils but then felt compelled to inform their Jewish brethren about their discovery. The Jewish army verified the news and rushed to plunder the Aramean camp, causing the fulfillment of Elisha’s prophecy and a sudden abundance of food.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 107b) has a tradition that these four lepers were actually Gechazi and his sons, cursed by Elisha for their greed. The Gemara (Arachin 16a) tells us that greed and l’shon hara (hurtful speech) are amongst the seven sins which cause tzoraas, which Gechazi and company suffered from. When these blokes find the food of the abandoned camp, not only do they eat, drink and make merry, their next instinct is to take the gold and silver and hide it. Subsequently, they have second thoughts and they realize that this was a miraculous opportunity and should not be wasted. They then go and inform their Jewish brothers of the windfall.

I always looked at the metzoraim in this story charitably, in that they underwent a transformation and reformation of character. Yes, in the beginning they were greedy, but then they got hold of themselves and changed their approach. This might have been their penitence. However, another reading might describe them precisely as the mice in the Yerushalmi. They were interested in themselves, and only once their needs were satisfied, they considered bringing in their friends. One final interesting feature of the story is that the same Gemara Arachim gives an example of a more subtle and sly form of hurtful speech, which is if a person had a generous host, and then tells others about the good food, leaving the host inundated. This too, seems to be the behavior of these wicked mice.


Weighing Sin

Our Gemara on Amud Beis considers the relative legal severity of two different kinds of watchmen: The free watchman, and the hired watchman. On a simple level, the hired watchman has more legal liability and severity than the free watchman. The hired watchman is liable for theft, and forms of non-negligent loss, while the free watchman can claim the object was stolen and be exempt, so long as he takes an oath that he employed an expected standard of supervision and that he did not appropriate the object for himself. Yet, if it turns out that he lied, and he took the object for himself, he is now liable just as a thief, and must pay kefel, the double penalty.  So in an interesting twist, the free watchman has one legal liability that is more severe than the hired watchmen. The hired watchman will never incur the penalty of kefel, the double penalty, because there’s never an instance where he can claim that it was stolen (burglarized) and actually be exempt via a false oath. Even if he claimed it was stolen, he would be obligated to pay for the loss in accordance with his responsibilities as a hired watchman, therefore he never could make an oath on this and incur the double payment penalty. This shows a technical stringency that is really not an overall stringency.  In most situations, the free watchman has less liability, yet here only he can incur the kefel penalty. Because of this, there is a dispute about whether the free watchman is considered to have a side that is legally more strict than the hired watchman, which could disrupt a kal v’chomer derivation.

Tosafos offers a deeper explanation as to why this does not constitute a stringency. The reason is, the particular stringency of paying a double penalty, only stems from a root leniency. Remember, the free watchman is exempt from liability for theft, so long as he makes this oath. At its core, this a leniency, even if in one dimension he could incur a financial fine that the hired watchman will never incur, should he make a false oath that it was burglarized when it wasn’t. We see from this Talmudic analysis, that it is possible for one category to have technical stringency, but still be considered overall more lenient than another category, so long as those stringencies stem from a basic leniency.

This principle is used by Rav Yehoshua Hartman to explain a difficult Maharal. The Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 39) asserts that the sin of making a false oath is in certain ways, even more severe than idolatry. To illustrate, he quotes a Midrash that offers the following metaphor. One province rejects their king and appoints another monarch, while another province does not technically reject the king, but is utterly contemptuous toward the king. Which province shall we characterize as more disrespectful? Even though, technically, the first province completely rejected the king and replaced him, intuitively we can understand that the second province committed greater disrespect in mocking their king. So too, while idolatry is utterly rejecting God, swearing falsely in God‘s name is more deeply disrespectful because His name is being invoked.

Rav Hartman asks, if so, why is swearing falsely written in the 10 Commandments after the prohibitions against idolatry? The Maharal (ibid 36) already established that the 10 Commandments are enumerated in order of severity. However, if we use the Talmudic principle discussed above, the logic is understandable. Even though in one aspect, swearing falsely in God’s name is more disrespectful than idolatry, it still stems from a core leniency. That is to say, idolatry at its root  is an utter rejection of God, while swearing falsely acknowledges God’s presence and existence. True, because of that, to swear falsely in His name is an even greater disgrace than merely ignoring God, it also is ultimately not as severe as idolatry in the big picture.

We see from here that the measurement and impact of sin can be multivalent. Sometimes a sin, that is technically more minor, can be more severe, because of the implications and the relationship between God and the person. If the relationship is closer, and acknowledged, which represents an overall good thing, even a smaller sin can become a greater disrespect and rejection. This is true in all relationships, the deeper the connection, the greater potential for breach of trust and pain when betrayals occur.


Torah and Paradox 

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph makes a number of suggestions regarding money management from a practical and metaphysical point of view.

Rabbi Yitschok advises a person to keep a certain amount of money liquid, presumably, so that he can respond quickly to investment opportunities. He also states that financial blessing is found on matters that are hidden from the eye. Similarly, Rabbi Yishmael says that financial blessings are only found when “the eye has no dominion over it”.

There are different explanations offered for why this is so, ranging from this prevents the evil eye, as well as allowing God to miraculously intervene without it appearing as an open miracle. Another possibility is that by not counting and measuring, it shows greater faith in God, similar to the idea that the Manna was meant to be taken on a day by day basis (Shemos 16:4.)

There are some interesting features and ideas latent within this text. Ben Yehoyada notices a discrepancy between Rabbi Yitschok’s and Rabbi Yishmael’s terminology.  Rabbi Yitschok says, “hidden from the eye”, while Rabbi Yishmael says, “the eye has no dominion over it.” Ben Yehoyada says that Rabbi Yishmael has a stronger standard than Rabbi Yitschok. For Rabbi Yitschok it needs to be merely out of sight, that is just covered.  If you see a bulging wallet, you know there is money there, but you just do not see it. But Rabbi Yishmael requires the eye to have no awareness of its existence.

This is notable, as elsewhere we find Rabbi Yitschok stating the famous principle of “a person is prone to feel his money pouch constantly”, which Gemara Bava Metzia (21b) uses to justify why we can assume found money is already ownerless, as the person already noticed he lost it and gave up.  Also of note, Rabbi Yishael famously argues against Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Berachos (35b), stating that though one must always learn Torah, it cannot be in contravention to the normal way of the world. That is, one must first do what it takes to earn a living.  

This is the fascinating and paradoxical way that Torah values often work. It is not so much an issue of black and white, but rather competing and balancing tension between values.  (As we discussed in Psychology of the Daf, Bava Metzia 37. The Ritva, in Eiruvin 13a, famously explains that every halacha has 49 aspects to allow and 49 aspects to forbid.) Thus, inasmuch as Rabbi Yitschok says a person is constantly checking his money, he also says one must keep perspective and understand that the true source of money and blessing is God.  Similarly, Rabbi Yishmael who stresses practicality and the need to earn a living which supersedes Torah study, also pushes an even stronger level of faith than Rabbi Yitschok, requiring an even greater renunciation of financial awareness.

As a final thought, there is a deeper idea to the principle discussed in our Gemara that blessing is found when it is hidden from the eye. As we have discussed elsewhere, in the mystical world, opposites are related. (See Maharal Tiferes Yisrael 37 and Gevuros Hashem 4, where he observes that Light and Dark, cold and hot are merely on a continuum.  Dark is just a far-end manifestation of much less light, and cold is on the far end of a continuum of heat.)  Thus, God’s divine flow, which is the ultimate reality, stems precisely from nothingness, ex-nihilo, because God is so much the other, and so much the opposite of physicality, that His manifestation must come when “space” is made for Him by removal of the physical. Ironically this is another way that we can model God’s behavior. God needed to withdraw in some way in order to allow for anything to exist since He is omnipresent, known as the mystical concept of tzimtzum. So too, when people remove their own petty concerns and investments in material matters, we make room for God‘s blessings to flow. This also may be related to the theological principle discussed in Gemara (Megillah 31a): 

“Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you also find a reference to His humility adjacent to it. For example: “For thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, Whose name is sacred” (Isaiah 57:15), and it is written immediately afterward: “In the high and holy place I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” (Isaiah 57:15). It is stated a third time in the Writings, as it is written: “Extol Him Who rides upon the clouds, Whose name is the Lord” (Psalms 68:5), and it is written immediately afterward: “A father of the fatherless, and a judge of widows” (Psalms 68:6).

There is a related idea in the addiction recovery community. One must hit bottom in order to break through the rationalizations, see the truth, and seek the higher power. Wisdom first begins, and possibly even material attainment begins, when we realize that we truly have nothing, and are nothing – save for God.


About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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