Daf Yomi Bava Basra 5
A friend tells me that he recently overheard two men arguing in shul over whether Moshiach could come on Shabbos or not.
“Of course he can’t come on Shabbos,” shouted the first fellow, “there are legal limits on the distance that one may travel and Moshiach would never dare transgress halacha!”
“That’s nonsense,” replied his interlocutor, “Moshiach is destined to come at a certain time and he can’t be late. If that day is Shabbos, we’ll ask him then how he got here. But G-d forbid you should suggest delaying his arrival!”
“That’s a load of hogwash. How can you call yourself a frum Jew and blatantly disregard halacha like that?” responded the first, rising from his seat.
“Look who’s questioning whose Jewishness!” said the other fellow, “You can barely read Rashi!” And with that, he slammed his siddur down and stormed out of the shul.
Runya bought a piece of land adjacent to Ravina’s property. Ravina intended to displace him on the grounds that the neighbouring owner has the first right of refusal.
Rav Safra the son of Rav Yaiva said to Ravina: People say, ‘Four for the hide, four for the tanner.’
Rashi explains: The scriptural source of the law of Bar Metzra, the neighbour’s first right of refusal, is the verse, ‘And you shall do what is right and good.’ Runya was a poor tanner whose expenses barely covered his costs. In this case, the spirit of the law implied allowing him to keep the property.
Bar Metzra is a powerful mitzvah that demonstrates the Almighty’s compassion in His Divine code. Rationally, you would say ‘first come, first served’ – if a stranger wants to buy a piece of property and hears about it first, he has every right to make an offer. Comes along the Torah, and says no! Ownership of adjacent properties is better for business, it’s better for growing families – even if a stranger has already purchased the property, the neighbor has the right to buy it back! Only the Torah could devise such a kind and merciful law.
Now in our Gemara, Ravina wanted to execute his right of Bar Metzra. After all, he was the adjacent property owner. And so he comes to the beth din of Rav Safra and requests an official court order supporting his claim to ‘do what is right and good.’ Rav Safra turns around and chastises him: If you’re really interested in doing ‘what is right and good,’ then consider this poor fellow who’s barely able to make ends meet. The right thing to do, in this particular case, is to allow him to keep the field.
Sometimes, we’re so microscopically focused on the letter of the law that we forget the spirit of the law. Take our friends arguing about Moshiach arriving on Shabbos, for example. The dispute got so hot that one stormed out of shul. And yet, the main prerequisite to Moshiach is that we simply love one another! That’s the real answer as to when he will arrive – when we’re able to put petty arguments aside to promote shalom.
Of course we must heed the letter of the law. But we must never neglect the spirit of the law. Because without the spirit, you don’t even have the letter. Put differently, if all you’re seeing are trees, you’ll never find your way through the forest.
Why do we have all the minutiae of Shabbos laws? To guide us as to how to rest and devote ourselves one day a week to Hashem, family, and community. But if your entire Shabbos is spent lecturing your kids about the dos and don’ts of Shabbos, leaving them with a sour taste in their mouths, you’ve missed the whole point. And so on and so forth.
Any mitzvah you do, always ask yourself what the ultimate underlying rationale is for the mitzvah. Sometimes it’s discernible, other times it’s beyond our limited psyche. Either way, may you forever align your will with the true intent of our Father in Heaven!