The halacha recognizes three distinct levels of responsibility for a watched object, or bail:
- An unpaid bailee is liable only for negligence (SA CM 291).
- A paid bailee, or a lessee, is liable for theft or loss, but not in cases of duress (SA CM 303, 307).
- A borrower is liable even for duress (but not for normal wear) because “all of the enjoyment is his” (SA CM 340).
In a previous column we related these three levels to three levels of “keeping” or “watching” the commandments. A person who takes little accountability for Torah and evades responsibility for “lost” opportunities to keep mitzvot was likened to an unpaid bailee; one who recognizes the great reward for observance and thus takes greater care, but reconciles himself to great obstacles was likened to a paid bailee; whereas a person who recognizes that “all of the enjoyment is his”, that Torah observance is its own reward, will take the utmost steps to help himself perform mitzvot in any circumstance.
Rav Natan of Breslav suggests a similar parallel between keeping Torah and watching a bail, but he draws the likeness in the opposite direction – the motivation for keeping Torah rather than consciousness of the reward.
In Rav Natan’s schema, a paid bailee (shomer sakhar) corresponds to someone who keeps the mitzvot in order to obtain a reward. Whereas an unpaid bailee (shomer chinam) corresponds to someone who is not interested in any reward and keeps the Torah solely for its own sake.
Incidences of duress represent damage that a person is aware of; “they occur with a person’s knowledge, but he is unable to prevent them”. But theft and loss are damage that occurs precisely because a person is unable to exercise perfect supervision; “they occur because of a disappearance of awareness, a kind of faulty consciousness”.
The ordinary righteous individual is scrupulous to fulfill mitzvot and is motivated by their reward. This shows that he has fear of God, for he is afraid of losing his reward. Since his fear is complete, Hashem protects him from unpreventable damage, which he would normally have to fear. But he has not completely subdued his consciousness; he is still concerned with how his conscious acts will affect his reward. He is still an independent actor on the earthly scene. Thus, Hashem makes him responsible for his conscious acts, and if there are lapses he will be held responsible.
A few isolated individuals are able to attain the level where the reward for the mitzvot is of no importance to them. These individuals attain such a high level of Divine providence and supervision that no ill befalls them. They have completely subdued their consciousness and their desires; they are not concerned with the consequences of their acts and their instrumentality but only with fulfilling God’s will. Such a person does not conceive of himself as an independent actor. Since even their consciousness is completely subordinated to Hashem’s service, He provides that no harm will come as a result of lapses in consciousness, such as theft or loss. (They are exempt not only for liability for duress, but are actually exempt from incidences of duress.)
Rav Natan does not relate in this section to a borrower, but we can easily extend the likeness. A borrower does acknowledge that the object is not his and must be returned to the owner; he even feels a sense of gratitude towards the lender. But his focus is on his own needs. This corresponds to a person who does keep Torah, but feels that the mitzvot serve him, rather than contemplating his own role as a servant of Hashem and a supervisor of His world and Torah. His fear of heaven is deficient; since his acknowledgment of Hashem’s providence is deficient, he is in effect exposing himself to the vagaries of nature and its accidents instead of trusting in God’s protection. Thus he is liable to accidents which we could consider “duress”. – (Based on Likutei Halakhot Sefirat HaOmer 2:6)
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.