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MISHPATIM 5776 - Was Murphy Jewish?


Was Murphy Jewish?

Did you ever notice that as you go through life, there seems to be a far-reaching principle at work? If you’re shopping, for example, no matter how long or how hard you shop for an item, after you’ve bought it, you’ll find it on sale somewhere else for less. If you’re playing golf, no matter which hole you’re playing, it’s against the wind. 

Applied to gravity: An object will fall in such a way as to do the most damage. Anyone who’s been to committee meetings knows that, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to its importance.” In politics we have Katz’s Law: Men and nations will act rationally only when all other possibilities have been exhausted.

If you reflect on your social life, you know that in the course of several months, if only 3 worthwhile social events take place, they will fall on the same night! In medicine it manifests as: Only adults have difficulty with child-proof bottles.

We find this everywhere. While driving: How come it always takes longer to get there than to get back? While doing household chores: How come washing machines only break down during the wash cycle when it’s most messy? In marriage: How come the one who snores always falls asleep 1st!

What is this great, universal principle that seems to rule every aspect of our lives? That’s right, it’s Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” There’s also O’toole’s commentary on Murphy’s law which states: “Murphy was an optimist.” Murphy’s law amuses us because it reflects our experience in the real world—its stubborn resistance to our plans, will and talent. Does the Torah know about Murphy’s Law? The Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 4:4) tells us: “When you win, you win a charcoal; when you lose, you lose a pearl.”

After the drama of receiving the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai, today’s Torah portion presents us with a full range of civil and criminal laws. From the laws of liability in case of an accident, the Talmud raises the following question: “If a man fell off a roof and injured another, what is his liability?” The answer is: If the fall was caused by an unusual gust of wind, he is liable only to pay basic damages, but need not compensate for medical expenses, loss of time, humiliation or pain. If there was no unusual gust of wind, he is liable for damages, medical expenses, pain, loss of time, but not humiliation, because there is no liability for humiliation unless there was an intent to humiliate. So far, so good.

Then the Talmud raises another question: “What if a man fell off a roof onto a woman and accidentally had intimate contact with her?” Well, you and I probably wouldn’t even think of such a case, but the Rabbis knew that what can go wrong will go wrong. I admit this is rather far-fetched—probably invented to just clarify a point concerning liability and intent. But the rabbinic meticulous attention to detail—to be perfectly fair to the nth degree—is what makes the Talmud both so fascinating and useful.

Finally, anyone who keeps a kosher home knows that accidents will happen. The Rabbis knew that, so they developed the “1-in-60” rule learned from the percentage of non-kosher to kosher parts of an animal. Let’s say you have a nice pot of meat stew boiling on the stove, and you’re walking across the kitchen with a glass of milk in your hand, and you trip over Murphy, the cat. A drop of milk flies across the room and lands—wouldn’t you know it—in the stew pot. We had learned from today’s Torah (Ex. 23:19): “You shall not cook a kid in the milk of its mother”—that cooking meat and milk is forbidden. So what happens? If there is at least 60 times the volume of stew as the amount of milk—absolutely nothing. The milk is absorbed, loses its identity and is considered as if it’s not there. You can’t use this principle to make your stew more creamy because this only works after the fact, for damage control, because especially in kitchens, what can go wrong, will go wrong.

There are 2 things we can learn from all this: the 1st is that a system of law—sacred or secular—to be successful must take into account the accidents and failings of the real world and real people. The 2nd thing we can learn is what our expectations should be. As the famous Yiddish version of Murphy’s Law puts it: Mentch tracht und Gutt lacht, “Man plans and Gd laughs.” To have unrealistically high expectations of life’s perfection can lead to anger, bitterness, despair and paralysis when things inevitably do go wrong.

In our world today we have come to believe that there are no problems that can’t be solved by some product or technology. There are now self-driving cars—soon to be available to the mass market—that will avoid almost all accidents. We have 3-D printers that now can print some body parts and soon others to replace ones that are diseased. I don’t think we appreciate this enough, but when we have an emergency we can call 911 and help will come. Need information immediately? Google is at your fingertips. Magical thinking pervades our world and so we get angry and even personally offended when things go wrong.

Consider this: the laws of nature that frustrate us also make life possible; those qualities of willfulness and stubbornness that madden us in other people are the very same freedom and independence we celebrate in ourselves. We are blessed with life, but it comes without a warranty our guarantee of smoothness. So don’t be shocked that the common state—more often than not—isn’t bliss, but frustration and aggravation. Murphy’s Law and Jewish law both stand ready to tell you: control is an illusion; you can’t control everything. Suspect anyone who says he can.

So the next time the garbage disposal backs up on the night of your dinner party…or when your refrigerator stops working the day before Passover…or when you’re in a hurry so you go to the 10-items-or-less check-out lane at the grocery store and you get the slowest checker…remember there are tractates of the Talmud devoted to accident and human error. Remember that the world is pretty good, but not perfect. Remember, as the Talmud (Avot 2:21) teaches, “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” So the next time Murphy’s Law confronts you, take a deep breath, sigh, laugh, shrug your shoulders, and keep on trying, for the true meaning of life, in fact all real growth in life is found in the struggle. So embrace Murphy Law and really live! Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Kunis


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