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Shabbat Shuvah

Contract Law and the Mitzvah of Teshuvah

The following story may be familiar to many lawyers. While it uses language and ideas more familiar to the realm of law, from our point of view this is a classic Chassidish story that was translated into modern language. The following is a true story.


Stewart Macaulay, an expert in civil law, was about to marry the daughter of a businessman, an industrialist. His future father-in-law invited him to discuss, among other things, the plans his future son-in-law had for his own future. Macaulay told him that he taught law and that his expertise was contract law. His father-in-law was very interested and the young groom went into detail about contract law and ended up lecturing him about the basic principles of the law, possible methods of enforcement, and the basic terms of the discipline. The father-in-law listened attentively, up until the point he burst out laughing. He claimed that the young man's description of contract law bore no similarity to the norms of the business world, a place where contracts are tools of the trade, used daily. He invited Macaulay to his factory to see how they dealt with contacts in the real business world, outside the walls of the university.

Macaulay accepted the challenge. He sat in the industrialist's office and to his surprise discovered that his future father-in-law was right, that he didn't know a thing about contract law in the real world. For example, he saw that what lawyers called "breach of contract" the business world called an "order cancelation." An average lawyer in this situation would bring out the "big guns" and sue to collect the maximum amount of fines possible, but a businessperson would not rush to such an extreme reaction. Inside the business world the fuse is much longer, and there's room to absorb an "order cancelation." Of course, if the offense is repeated and becomes a norm then the businessperson may decide that the relationship is no longer worthwhile and choose to cut ties and lose the business. (M. Mautner, "How Does Israel's Contract Law Develop?" 34 Tel Aviv University Law Review, 2011)

Based on his experience Macaulay understood that there was a difference between the world of business and the world of law and he was able to articulate it. He understood that contract law is modeled after the stereotypical contract, which is generally drawn up for one time deals, like when a person buys a cup of coffee at a drive through, or orders a clock over the internet. In these circumstances the two sides are randomly brought together and they may never meet again. But in the world of business such meetings are much less common. The culture of the business world is mostly built on relationships that are significantly more complex- long term relationships that based in trust and strengthened by mutual profit and loss.

If life was simple I could sue my neighbor if they damaged my car. The problem is I still have to see them in the corner market, and our children still want to be able to play together. In the business world it pays for a merchant to accept the clothes I return in order to keep me as a customer. Sometimes it's worth it to absorb the cost of one cancelled transaction to retain the long term business relationship. This is a healthy way to live life. When we look at the big picture instead of focusing on every petty detail life flows better. Our actions still have consequences, but they are long term. A relationship can't last, and it certainly can't flourish and succeed, if it is constantly threatened by legal sanctions.

While this theory has significant legal ramifications, it also has far-reaching applications in other areas. In our case we will use it to help us gain greater insight into the religious experience. Both these approaches, that of the legal system and that of the business world, reflect two different ways we relate to our Creator. One approach views Divine service like a solitary business transaction, a random encounter between two parties with no pre-existing relationship. With such a mindset religion, and life itself, is experienced as a series of tests. Each individual moment is an opportunity to pass, or to fail. The dominant elements of this type of religious experience are stress, fear, and a constant struggle.

This may be the approach represented by the Tannaim Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Natan in the following mishnah:

"Rabbi Yossi says: A person is judged every day, as it says, 'V'tifkideinu labkarim,' 'You remember us mornings.'  Rabbi Natan said: A person is judged every hour, as it says, 'L'rigaim tivchaneinu,' 'For every moment You test us.'" (T.B. Rosh Hashanah 16a)

Mautner's story helped me clarify the idea that there is also another way that offers a completely different approach to religious life. This mindset is based on an awareness that our relationship with God is ongoing- Torah and halachah, God and us- we are all in it for the long haul. Even if we ignore the more forgiving aspects of this theory, it still alleviates some of the stress; this release allows us to understand that the relationship is both more complex and also less pressurized than we may have thought at first. If we view our experience of Torah and faith as a long term contract then our experience can be refined as well as enhanced. Our experience is holistic, it includes the moments we are tested and our failures. But each experience is not judged on its own in that one moment. Each moment is put into the context of a life of Torah. This point of view is brought by the mishnah:

"At four points the world is judged: ... On Rosh Hashanah (The New Year)- All who come to the world pass before Him as one by one, as sheep, as it says, 'He that created their hearts together, Who understands all their actions.'" (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah Chapter 1, Mishnah 2)

This mishnah reinforces the idea that there are long stretches of time in between the judgments, and that the entirety of our actions are judged at that time.

These approaches are not exclusive; we use them both in our lives. We may find ourselves doing teshuva on a day by day, or even moment by moment basis. We may regret a word that we said. We may be trying to be more accepting, but before we know it we slip back into our critical ways and feel despondent that once again we are having trouble overcoming our tendencies. At the same time we may find ourselves, once a year, in these Days of Repentance, looking at the entire package, doing a general chesbon nefesh, self-evaluation. Maybe we will find good along with all those things we deem problematic. We can look forward and see the way ahead, it is long, it is wide, and it is good. It consists of progress, strengthening our relationship with God and His Torah.

Note:  All of Rabbanit Tikochinsky’s parsha commentaries are stored on the LSS web site. To access them, please visit You are also welcome to forward the link to people who are outside the LSS community and who may otherwise not have access to her columns. 

Sat, June 19 2021 9 Tammuz 5781