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Parashat Mishpatim

In memory of Betty and Ezra Hedaya by Alice and Bobby Hedaya and their children, Evan, Barbara, Bert, and Richie.

Parashat Mishpatim

From Har Sinai

At the end of last week’s parasha, Am Yisrael received the holy Torah on Har Sinai. Immediately following this momentous occurrence in our history, Parashat Mishpatim teaches us to start learning all the Torah’s laws and ordinances. We learn how to conduct ourselves as the Chosen Nation, both for our own sake and to set an example for the other nations of the world. This is the reason that the parasha begins, “Ve’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lefnehem — And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” Rashi comments that when the Torah begins a passage with eleh—these, the previous passage is separated from the new one. However, when the Torah uses the word ve’eleh—and these, the two passages are closely linked. The Torah is telling us, just as the Ten Commandments were given from Hashem by Har Sinai, so too these ordinances are from Har Sinai.

Rabbi Twerski writes in his book Twerski on Chumash about how a great rabbi was once challenged by a government official. “Why do your rabbinic courts dispose of a case so quickly? We have lawyers that study both sides of the case and gather evidence. After the court rules, there may be several appeals. That way we know justice is carried out.” The rabbi responded with a mashal—parable.

A wolf once made off with a lamb from a flock, but he was accosted by a lion who took the lamb from him. The wolf protested, but the lion insisted that as the king of all animals, he has the right to all prey. The wolf and lion decided to take their dispute to the fox, the wisest of all the animals. The fox ruled that both the wolf and lion had rights to the animal, so he determined they should share the lamb equally, so he proceeded to divide it. He saw one piece was larger than the other, so he ate from it to make the pieces equal. He nibbled a bit too much, so he ate from the other to make the pieces equal. By the time they were equal to each other, almost nothing was left.

The rabbi said, “That’s your judicial system. With endless litigation, the lawyers end up receiving most of the money. In a Bet Din, both sides have their say, and the ruling is swift.” This gives us insight into the Torah’s legal philosophy.

Be Nice to Others

The Ramban comments that the laws of Mishpatim, which deal with manslaughter, negligence, kidnapping, bribery, borrowing, damages for accidents, and so on, are all an extension of the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet your friend’s house, his wife, his servant, his maid, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your friend.” According to the Ramban, if you are envious of your friend’s possessions, that envy could lead to every other sort of transgression against others — like stealing, adultery, and even murder chas veshalom!

Parashat Mishpatim goes on to discuss fifty-three laws. Thirty of them are negative commandments, and twenty-three are positive commandments. Most of the laws concern human interaction, man-to-man, as opposed to interactions between man and G-d. Why does the parasha found directly after the Ten Commandments discuss laws between man and man, rather than the laws between man and G-d?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement, teaches us that this is because you cannot be a truly pious person if you just follow the commandments between man and G-d. You must also follow the injunctions to treat your fellow man with justice and kindness. The Commandments on the right side of the tablets are between man and G-d, and on the left side they are between man and man. This teaches us that both are of equal importance. Even if you practice all the strictest chumrot—halachik stringencies, it will not be enough if you do not treat others with the proper respect and care. In practice, to be a truly religious Jews, we must concentrate on both types of mitzvot, so that we may continue to learn and grow!

Charlie Harary told a story about a friend of his who was in a supermarket an hour before Shabbat. There was a woman who was ready to check out, and she had a full shopping cart. She handed the cashier her credit card, and the cashier said, “I’m sorry, your card is declined.” The woman looked around, embarrassed, and said, “Okay, just put it on my account, please.” The cashier pulled it up on the computer and said, “I can’t put it on the account, it’s maxed out at $4,000.” The woman was so ashamed, she looked like she wanted to crawl into a hole. “Okay… I’m going to go put the stuff back.”

Immediately, and very nonchalantly, Charlie Harary’s friend handed his credit card to the cashier and said, “No problem, please put it on my card.” This man quickly responded to a need, and without causing a scene or any further embarrassment, he took care of his fellow Jew, no questions asked! The woman looked at him with tears in her eyes and a heart full of appreciation. And she wheeled her full cart out of the store.

But the story doesn’t end there.

When the man standing behind the person who paid for the groceries witnessed that quick interaction, he was so inspired himself. As Charlie Harary’s friend was walking out, he overheard the gentleman that was behind him in line say, “How much was on that woman’s account?” When the cashier said, “$4,000,” this man answered, “Do me a favor, add up my groceries and just put her account on there and wipe it clean.” And when he was done, he just pushed his cart out of the store. No fanfare, no smiling, no patting on the back, he just quietly performed this act of kindness and generosity for a complete stranger totally anonymously.

Mishpatim teaches us the importance of being kind, of interacting properly with our fellow man. When we follow the mitzvot between man and man and treat each other with empathy and respect, we can truly excel at the mitzvot between man and G-d.

Strangers in Egypt

The Torah teaches, “Do not say cruel things to a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (22:20).” Rashi adds that the word ger—stranger is not only referring to a convert to Judaism (as the word often implies), but to any stranger who is new to a situation. Rabbi Frand explains the words “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” People who have been through difficult circumstances sometimes want others to experience what they had to experience. When they see someone else who is in the same situation that they were in, there is a tendency to say “Listen, I had to go through a lot to get where I am today and now you have to suffer a little also. It’s good for you. Adversity builds character.” This is why the Torah is saying, ‘don’t oppress the stranger just because you were strangers in Egypt.’ Don’t try to impose your trials and tribulations upon the stranger. Every person and every generation have their own tests.

We often heard from our parents, “You think you have it hard? We had it hard! I came to this country during a depression, we didn’t even have two nickels to rub together. We walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways!” Now, years later, we say the same thing to our kids, “I had nothing; you have everything; tough it out a little!” But we can’t forget that today’s generation has their own tests. We had our nisyonot, and they have theirs. We should oppress the stranger just because we also faced difficulty in our lives.

Be Extra Sensitive to the Widow and the Orphan

The Torah goes on to discuss many laws about damages and injury between neighbors. It then singles out the treatment of widows and orphans. “If you oppress [the widow or orphan], for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry. My wrath will be kindled, and I will slay you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans (22:22-23).”

The Torah uses double lashon for “oppress,” “cries,” and “hear.” This is because when the widow or orphan cries out to Hashem, her pain is doubled, since a widow doesn’t have a husband and an orphan doesn’t have a parent to provide protection. The Rambam and the Sefer HaChinuch all rule that this mitzvah is not limited to widows and orphans. Rather, it applies to anyone who is weak or downtrodden. Widows and orphans are vulnerable by nature. Still, we should worry about hurting any person, because no one really knows who is weak or vulnerable. Every word we speak could possibly be another indictment against us, as the verse concludes, “And should the [the widow or orphan] cry to Me, I shall certainly hear him!”

The Only Money That’s Really Ours

The parasha also includes an injunction against charging interest when you lend money (22:24). This is one of only three places in the Torah where the word “im” means “when,” and not “if.” Why does the Torah use the language of “When you lend money,” as opposed to “If you lend money?”

We learn that to assist a poor man with a loan is not optional, it is obligatory, providing that you have the extra money to lend him. The Or HaChaim explains, “When you realize that Hashem has blessed you with good parnassah and more wealth than you need to live, you must understand that a percentage of that money actually belongs to the poor man, and Hashem gave it to you to hold for him. When you lend it to him, you’ll even get a mitzvah! In addition, this becomes a great opportunity, for when you give tzedakah to a fellow Jew, it’s as if the lender is benefiting even more than the borrower, by means of a very big mitzvah!” The Kli Yakar goes even further, saying that when the poor man comes to you, it should be perceived as if he’s doing more for you, than you’re doing for him!

In Baba Batra 11a, there is a quote by King Munbaz, a righteous convert who moved his royal estate to Yerushalayim in the time before the destruction of the second Bet Hamikdash. During the years of famine, he used the contents of his royal storage houses to feed the poor. When his family protested, he said, “My father hoarded money in an insecure place here on Earth, but I want to protect my wealth much more securely — in Olam Habah — by giving it away to the poor and the needy.” In the end no matter how wealthy a person may become on Earth, the mitzvot that he earned is the only currency that he’ll take with him to Olam Habah!

Soul Snatching

He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. And he who steals a man and sells him… shall be put to death. And he who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death (15-17).” Why does the parasha have a passuk about the punishment for kidnapping right between two pesukim about the punishment for hitting or cursing one’s parents?

Rabbi Avraham Bukspan responds in Classics and Beyond. When parents push their own dreams and aspirations on their child, the child’s individual needs are usually overlooked. A child is supposed to be nurtured and his needs are supposed to be met so the child can grow into the best person he can be. If a parent is selfish, more interested in achieving his own goals as opposed to his son’s, the child will resent his parent. That is why kidnapping is in between the sin of assaulting and cursing one’s parents. Because what drives someone to hit his mother or father? When his parents kidnap not flesh and blood, but a young child’s soul—a life that could have been.

May we always be conscious of the laws between man and man, as well as the laws between man and G-d. May we also be considerate of the poor man among us, and understand that we aren’t just helping him, he is helping us. Whatever we give to tzedaka in this world is going into our personal account in Olam Habah, which can never be taken away from us — because in Hashem’s eyes that’s all that we really own! May we nurture each of our children according to their individual needs so they can grow and fulfill their potential in this world. Amen!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes, written by Jack Rahmey

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