Parashat Mishpatim


Parashat Mishpatim

CloudsIn this week’s sedra, Mishpatim, the Jewish People receive a series of laws concerning social justice.  There are too many to enumerate here, but they include:


Proper treatment of Jewish servants.

 A husband’s obligations toward his wife.

 Penalties for hitting people and cursing parents, judges, and leaders.

 Financial responsibilities for physically damaging someone or their property, either by oneself or by one’s 
animate or inanimate property, or by pitfalls that one created.

 Payments for theft, not returning an object that one accepted responsibility to guard.

 The right to self-defense for a person being robbed.

Other topics include: Prohibitions against seducing a young woman,practicing witchcraft, bestiality and sacrifices to idols.  The Torah warns us to treat the convert, widow and orphan with dignity, and to avoid lying.  Lending and usury is forbidden, and the rights over collateral are limited.  Payment of obligations to the Temple should not be delayed, and the Jewish People must be Holy, even with regards to food.

The Torah teaches the proper conduct for judges in court proceedings.  The commandments of Shabbos and the Sabbatical year are outlined.  Three times a year-Pesach, Shavuot and Succot-we are told to come to the Temple.  The Torah concludes this listing of Laws with a Law of kashrut – not to mix milk and meat.  Hashem promises that He will lead the Jewish People to Israel, helping them conquer the nations that live there, and tells them that by fulfilling His commandments they will bring blessings to their nation.  The people promise to do and listen to everything that Hashem says.  Moshe writes the Book of the Covenant, and reads it to the people. Moshe ascends the mountain for 40 days in order to receive the two Tablets of the Covenant.  One of the verses in the sedra states “These are the laws which you will set before them” (21:1).  Moshe was enjoined to set the Torah before the Jewish people.  Such a vast amount of profound material would surely require much hard work in order to master it.  A casual review of the lessons, without laboring on each point, would not enable a person to become a true scholar.  A thorough study of the material is the only way to internalize the Torah.

When we teach our children we must try to help them to learn to question and to solve problems, rather than teach them by rote – just as Hashem instructed Moshe to teach us how to properly learn Torah.

Further on in the sedra, we are told that we should “Rather you should throw it [non-kosher meat] to the dogs.  Do not raise a false report” (22:30-23:1).  Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l gives us a very interesting insight into this verse.  The Torah states that even the dogs did not wag their tongues against the Bnei Yisrael.  During the Exodus from Egypt, Hashem provided the dogs with the self-discipline necessary to control their howling, so that the Egyptians would not be aware that their slaves were leaving.  A human being who has intelligence and yet is lacking the self-discipline needed to control his tongue, is on a lower level than the dogs.  The Torah juxtaposes the verse about the dogs with a verse about a tongue-wagging, false reporter – a gossip who speaks “lashon hara.”   This suggests that one who has no control of his tongue deserves to be thrown to the dogs (who once exhibited such control).

Although Moshe ascended Mount Sinai by himself to receive the Ten Commandments written with the “Finger of Hashem,” we must never forget that the Jewish People themselves heard Hashem speak the first two Commandments.  Never again in human history would Hashem speak to an entire nation at once.  Never again, as predicted by the Torah in Deuteronomy, would an entire nation even have the chutzpah to claim that Hashem spoke to their entire nation at once.  Only Hashem Himself could convince several million men, women and children that they were hearing Him speak.  Only Hashem could promise the Jewish People that no other nation would even claim that the experience was repeated for them.  Hashem not only authenticated the first two Commandments, but He told the Jewish people that they would be able to trust Moshe when he went up the mountain to receive the rest of the Torah on their request.

“When you lend money to My people, [to] the poor person [equal] with you, do not be like a creditor for him, do not place interest upon him” (22:24).  When we lend money to another Jewish person, we should remember that he also is part of Hashem’s people, and that He wants us to lend to His “family member.”  The Tenach tells us that when we are gracious to the poor we are really lending money to Hashem, and we can be certain that He will not default on His loan.  Therefore, we should not behave as a creditor toward the poor person, because we have not really lent him anything.  Similarly, we should remember that Hashem caused this person to be poor in order to give us the opportunity to perform this beautiful mitzvah of kindness.  Our Sages say that the poor man does more for us than we can ever do for him.  If a poor man is suffering on our account, it is not proper to expect him to pay us interest.

I read a nice idea on the verse “If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him repeatedly.” (23:4) from the Chofetz Chaim.  We live in an era when it’s hard to find a real atheist.  Once, there was a young Jew from the shtetl (village) who had set his heart on being an apikorus (atheist).  He traveled to the city of Odessa in the hope of meeting Yosel the apikorus – a famous atheist.

On his arrival in the big city, he asked to be directed to the house of this Mr. Yosel and he soon found himself standing before the door of the famous man.  Wafting through the door came the familiar lilting tune of someone learning gemara.  He knocked on the door, and the tune abruptly stopped.  “Come in!” called a voice.  He gingerly pushed the door open, and there, seated in front of him, was an old Jew with a long flowing white beard and peyos.  “Excuse me for disturbing you. I’m looking for Yosel the apikorus.”  The old Jew paused, looked at him, and said “You’ve found him.  I am Yosel the apikorus.”  “But…but…” he spluttered, “But, but the beard, the peyos.  The gemara!”  Yosel replied to him “I’m Yosel the apikorus, not Yosel the ignoramus.”

Nowadays it’s difficult to find an authentic card-carrying atheist.  They’rean endangered species, because most of us don’t really know what it is that we don’t believe in.  Our doubts are not based on knowledge; rather we have become strangers in a strange land, unlettered in our own heritage.  Mohammed called us “The People of The Book.”  The problem is that most of us can’t read The Book anymore, let alone understand it.  We are like sheep who have strayed so far from home that we have forgotten that a home even exists.

Let’s go back to our verse “If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him repeatedly.”  If the Torah shows such concern for the welfare of someone’s property, commanding us to go out of our way to return his animal to him even a hundred times over, surely all the more so must we be concerned to return a person to himself, to try and reach out to our brothers and sisters who have lost their identity as Jews, to show them the beauty and depth of the Torah.  In our times, when so many of us are like sheep lost in a spiritual wilderness, when we have no idea how to get back home, or even that there is a home, it is a tremendous mitzvah for those who can be shepherds to guide the lost and the benighted on the path that leads home to the light of Jewish self-awareness.

Another important commandment in the sedra is “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan”.  Rashi tells us that although the same prohibition applies to harming any person, the Torah mentions widows and orphans because their defencelessness makes them the target for affliction.

We must be especially careful not to transgress this commandment, as the following story demonstrates: Rabbi Yaakov Berlin once brought home some very expensive glassware.  The members of the household enjoyed it for only a few days when the maid dropped it and it broke.  His wife was very upset and loudly scolded the maid for her clumsiness.  Rabbi Berlin intervened and told his wife, “You have no right to shout at the maid and humiliate her.  If you feel that she should pay for it, take her to a rabbi for a halachic decision.”

Rebbetzin Berlin took her husband’s advice and set out to go with her maid to the Rabbi.  Rav Yaakov stood up and proceeded to accompany them.  “You don’t have to come with me,” said his wife, “I know what to say.”  “I’m, not going on your behalf,” answered her husband.  “I’m going to help this poor maid.  She’s an orphan, and does not have anyone to come to her defence.” 



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