In 1882, Patrick McQuade and Hyman Sarner were assembling a series of lots along Lexington Avenue for a planned apartment building. Everything was going well until they approached Joseph Richardson for a tiny lot on Lexington which was 102 feet long and just 5 feet wide. Because Richardson’s lot was virtually useless without the adjoining lots, McQuade and Sarner considered it to be worthless, and offered $1,000. Richardson played hardball, and demanded $5,000. McQuade and Sarner initially decided to go ahead with construction without the adjoining lot. But when they were ready to break ground, they went back to Richardson and offered to pay $5,000; but Richardson refused, angry about the first negotiations. A month later Richardson broke ground himself on a building of equal height; it would close off all the east-facing windows on McQuade and Sarner’s building. Richardson even moved into one of the apartments himself. This bizarre building, only five feet wide in most points, required specialty built furniture to fit into the rooms, and only one person could walk on the staircase at a time. New York’s newspapers quickly dubbed it “the spite house,” a fitting name for a building whose true foundation was nastiness and resentment. Eventually, the development of the subway would destabilize the foundation of this narrow building, and it had to be demolished.
Spite is not illegal. Richardson's behavior was abominable, but absolutely lawful. There is no remedy in the civil code for poor character and boorish behavior.
At first glance, this week's Torah reading has nothing to do with religion. Most of it is devoted to a legal code, with a list of penalties and punishments. These laws focus on the rights of slaves, death penalty crimes, personal injury, property damage, and breaches of trust. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza points out the jarring contrast between this legal code and the previous section, with the revelation of the Ten Commandments. He describes it with the Talmudic phrase “jumping from a high roof to a deep pit”; at Sinai, the people experience divine revelation, and receive the Ten Commandments, the foundation of an ideal society. But then the Torah jumps to a legal code that focuses on the imperfect deeds of imperfect men. What uplifting lessons can be found in a parsha about crimes and lawsuits?
Law seems empty of inspiration. It is concerned with boundaries and rules, and contains all the romance of protractor. But that is precisely why the Torah places these laws here, immediately after Mount Sinai. The Sefat Emet explains that the legal code in this parsha is meant to be more than a rational law book based on equity; It is infused with the divine spirit. These laws are meant to be applied in a matter that is inspired and inspirational. It is fascinating that the Sefat Emet’s insight is shared by the Italian scholar Umberto Cassuto. He compares this parshah's legal code code with Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrian codes of law; and as one would expect, there are similarities of style and language. But there is a fundamental difference: the Torah specifically relates these laws to God’s will rather than a king’s decree. Cassuto explains: “The Torah’s ethical intent creates further disparity. The entire concern of the aforementioned codes is to determine what is due to a person according to the letter of the law, ... whereas the Torah seeks many an occasion to go beyond the strictly legal requirements and to grant a man what is due to him from the ethical viewpoint, and from the aspect of the love of a man should bear his fellow, who is his brother, since both have one heavenly father.” Cassuto points out that interspersed within this parsha’s legal code are rules about returning collateral to an impoverished borrower, returning lost items, and not taking advantage of the stranger. The laws in this parsha demands that the legal system go beyond the protection of personal rights and ensure that a compassionate society is fostered.
Rabbinic literature continues the tradition of incorporating ethics into the legal realm, and actually includes laws against spite. The Talmud says that a court can compel one to do what is right and good. One of the more prominent examples of this is a rule called dina debar metzra, “the law regarding the owner of a neighboring field”. When a person offers a field for sale, once they receive an acceptable bid, they must turn to their neighbor and offer them the opportunity to buy the field, provided that the neighbor is willing to pay the same price, and do so immediately. This law gives the neighbor the opportunity to enlarge their own field and introduce economies of scale; it is cheaper to work one large field than two smaller fields of an equal size. Who the buyer is makes no difference to the seller; and he cannot refuse to sell to his neighbor purely out of spite.
Dina debar metzra offers a glimpse of what an inspired legal code might look like. Even so, there are limits to how often these rules are applied; like all legal codes, the Torah is committed first to preserving the rights of individuals. The Talmud notes in certain instances, such as when one damages another person’s property in an indirect fashion, one is exempt from the laws of man but obligated by the laws of heaven; you cannot sue to recover these damages, because even an inspired legal code cannot make every moral obligation actionable. But the Talmud still notes the moral obligation, and that is the second lesson of our parsha: Our moral obligations also go beyond what can be claimed in a courtroom. It reminds us that we need to stop to help someone whose donkey collapses in the street, and have compassion on the widow and orphan. The Talmud talks about the importance of lifnim meshurat hadin, “going beyond the letter of the law.” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein points out that paradoxically, going beyond the letter of the law is part of law; halakhah demands more of us than what is actionable in court.
In Pirkei Avot, the Mishna offers two perspectives on someone who says, “What is mine is mine, and yours is yours.” One opinion says that this is the average way, for the ordinary person who is neither generous nor dishonest. The second perspective says that this is actually the way of Sodom. Both perspectives are correct; the foundation of a society is individual rights, ensuring that what is mine is mine and yours is yours. Good fences do make good neighbors, and without boundaries there will be anarchy. But what is legal cannot be the ultimate ideal. The Talmud says that Jerusalem was destroyed because the judges stuck to the letter of the law, and did not search for justice. A community that never goes beyond “what is mine is mine and yours is yours” will end up divided and uncaring.
The lesson of this week's Torah reading is that law alone is lacking, and this lesson is particularly relevant today. We are fortunate to live in a country whose foundations are democracy, the rule of law, and the free enterprise system. Yet on their own, these institutions are insufficient; a state without a soul will ultimately crumble. Without communal unity, democracies will descend into the tyranny of the majority or break into warring factions. Divorced from values, law can be weaponized and turned into a method of combat. Without sympathy and charity, capitalism can descend into self-centered materialism. A society that idealizes "what is mine is mine and yours is yours" as its ultimate goal will lose it soul. The lesson of our Torah reading is that if a society lacks moral direction, all the legal codes in the world will be useless.
Without an obligation to go beyond the letter of the law, we will all end up living in spite houses of our own.