Once in the town of New Milford, there was a pothole.
Now of course there was probably more than one pothole in New Milford—as northern New Jersey is famous the world over for the quality of its roads-- but this particular one was quite impressive. Some residents felt it should be assigned its own zip code. It was wide. It was deep. It was an automobile killer. Many a tow truck had been called to haul a car away from an encounter with this legendary abyss.
This particular road chasm was located on a street known as the Boulevard, just in front of Michael Baumgarten’s laundromat, The Clean Machine. Michael regretted the inconvenience to his clientele that the cavernous crater caused, and he had emailed the town on more than one occasion to request a repair of the terrible trench, but so far the pothole remained a hazard to motorists, much to Michael’s chagrin. Still, there was very little he could do about it. In fact, he had become so accustomed to the thud noise that cars made as they entered this driving depression that it had almost become a normal part of his day.
One fateful Thursday, after Michael heard a particularly loud bang noise from the street, a rather irate looking gentleman named Harvey Halberstam huffed and puffed into the laundromat. Though it might not have been an unusual sight in a clothes-cleaning facility, steam was practically coming out of his ears.
“Who is responsible for that, that HOLE?” Harvey asked.
Michael offered Harvey a seat and a sympathetic ear. “Well, I’m not sure anyone is responsible for it. I mean, potholes happen. It’s just the nature of the beast, my friend. It’s winter in New Jersey.”
“On the contrary,” Harvey said. “Someone is most definitely responsible. Why, aren’t you familiar with this week’s parsha, Mishpatim?”
“Of course I’m familiar with it,” Michael responded, starting to get a bit annoyed. “Who isn’t familiar with Mishpatim? Why, it’s just jam packed with halachot, and I always make it a point to be familiar with a parsha like that!”
“Well, if you truly are familiar with the parsha, then you know that it says:
“And if a person shall open a pit, or if a person shall dig a pit and not cover it, and a bull or a donkey falls in it, the owner of the pit shall pay; he shall give money to its owner, and the dead animal shall be his.”
“Yes, I know those psukim. What’s your point?” Michael asked.
“My point is that you are responsible for the pothole in front of your store, and so you should pay for my car repairs.”
“That’s ridiculous! The pasuk clearly states that I would only be responsible if I dug the pit.”
“Or if there was a pit and you neglected to fill it in.”
“Again, that only applies if I dug it.”
“Yes, but I would assert that if you have had a pit in front of your store for months and you did nothing for all that time, then it’s as if you dug it yourself. At some point it should become your responsibility to fix it.”
“Oh really? What if I told you that if a man uncovers someone else’s pit and an animal falls in, he is liable.”
“So what! I didn’t uncover anything.”
“Perhaps, but you didn’t cover it, either.”
And so the argument went, back and forth. Michael and Harvey debated vigorously, until finally there was nothing more to say.
With no resolution in sight, they took the case to Rabbi Mandelbaum, the rabbi of the Beit Midrash of New Milford (or BMoNM as they liked to call it (the”n” is silent)).
Rabbi Mandelbaum felt he was too close to the two litigants to make a decision, and so he deferred the case to his rebbe, the Gaon of Oradell. He was said to be a man of great wisdom.
The Gaon of Oradell lived in an apartment above his shtiebel on Kinderkamack Road. It is said that he only comes downstairs to daven and for Shalos Seudos with his congregants on Shabbos. The rest of the time, he is either learning Torah, meditating, or watching Jeopardy. So essentially you either had to discuss Torah with him, or phrase your statement in the form of a question.
Michael and Harvey were escorted into the Gaon’s office where he was sitting and waiting for them. He listened to each of their versions of the story with great concentration. He asked a few questions of each of them. Had you called the town about the pothole? (Yes)Were you sympathetic when Harvey came in? (I think so) Did you try to avoid the pit? (I had no warning it was there) What kind of car do you drive? (2013 Ford Mustang) Have you ever sued someone before? (Chas vesholom!)
The Gaon of Oradell left the room for a few minutes, then came back with a pot of coffee and hot water for tea. He served both men a hot drink and offered them some egg kichel. Then he spoke.
“A very interesting case you presented me. If Alex Trebeck were here, he might say, “What is a quandary?”
Neither Michael nor Harvey laughed, so the Gaon went on.
“The first thing we should ask ourselves is, what is the purpose of this law? As with all the property laws in the Torah, the purpose is justice. Fairness between individuals. As such, I find that Michael did not create the pothole, nor did he attempt to ensnare people in it. He even called the town and requested it be repaired. And potholes are pretty common here in Bergen County, so any driver would have to be on the lookout for them. With this in mind, I find in favor of Mr. Baumgarten. No damages are assessed.”
“But, but that’s not fair!” Harvey interjected. “Rebbe, show some mercy!”
“The law is what the law is,” the Gaon said. ”And if I was to get all King Solomon on you I would point out that if you read the pasuk carefully, according to your logic, if Michael pays for the car, then he gets to keep it.
“And Michael, you have thirty days to get the town to repair the pothole. Unless you can demonstrate a reasonable attempt to get it fixed, you must privately pay for filling the hole.”
Michael bowed his head in respect. “Yes, Rebbe.”
And so, the Gaon of Oradell went back up to his apartment. Harvey paid to repair his car, which did not end up costing an arm and a leg. Michael got the town to fill the pothole. And Harvey got a free month of laundry service at The Clean Machine.
It was yet another wise verdict by the Gaon of Oradell. Or as he might have said, “What is a happy ending?”