Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Parshas Mishpatim

ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם (21:1)

כל מקום שנא' "אלה" פסל את הראשונים," ואלה" מוסיף על הראשונים מה הראשונים מסיני אף אלו מסיני (רש"י)

The yahrtzeit of Rav Yisroel Salanter (25 Shevat), the founder of the Mussar movement, traditionally falls during the week of Parshas Mishpatim, as it does this year on Friday. I once heard a beautiful insight into this non-coincidental connection based on Rashi’s first comment in the parsha.

Rashi explains that the purpose of the seemingly superfluous letter “vav” (and) at the beginning of the parsha is to emphasize a connection between this parsha and the previous one. Just as the preceding parsha related the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and it was obvious that the mitzvos contained therein were given by Hashem at Sinai, so too the mitzvos in Parshas Mishpatim were also given at Sinai.

Parshas Yisro contains the Aseres HaDibros (10 Commandments), the fundamentals of the Jewish religion which people are naturally scrupulous to perform. By and large, Parshas Mishpatim contains mitzvos pertaining to the conduct between us and our fellow man, laws which are often viewed as trivial and mundane, which causes us to be lax in their observance. For this reason, the Torah emphasizes their Divine origin, equal to that of the “more serious” injunctions of the Aseres HaDibros.

The life-long mission at which the great Rav Yisroel toiled endlessly was to convince Jews to recognize that the mitzvos governing our interpersonal interactions are just as important as those pertaining to our relationship with Hashem, and we must be equally meticulous in their performance. Rashi tells us that Rav Yisroel’s thesis is the message of the very first letter of our parsha. It is therefore fitting that his yahrtzeit falls this week, as learning our parsha is a most proper tribute to his legacy.

This message is illustrated by the following story involving a young newlywed who was careful to perform each mitzvah according to the most stringent opinion. Shortly before the holiday of Sukkos, his wife requested that they spend the holiday with her elderly mother. Her husband agreed and on the day before Sukkos, they traveled to her mother’s home, arriving just a few hours before the holiday.

As they began to unpack and get settled, he noticed that the Sukkah that his mother-in-law had constructed in her yard didn’t conform to a Rabbinical stringency required by the great Chazon Ish. Because time was short, he realized that he didn’t have sufficient time to adjust the Sukkah in order to meet this opinion, nor did he have time to return to his hometown.

Without any alternative, the husband was “forced” to eat his meals and sleep in the Sukkah of a neighbor. Meanwhile, his wife and mother-in-law were left to “enjoy” their holiday through bitter tears. A prominent Rav who heard about the incident remarked, “He kept the Rabbinical stringency of the Chazon Ish by violating the Torah’s commandment (22:21) against causing pain to a widow or orphan!”

As piety is often associated with the mitzvos between man and Hashem, it is unfortunately not uncommon for somebody wishing to prove his religious devotion to emphasize this type of mitzvah at the expense of those governing our interpersonal relationships. Our parsha teaches that true piety requires us to recognize that both categories emanate equally from Hashem and must be balanced accordingly.


אם רעה בעיני אדניה אשר לא יעדה ... ואם לבנו ייעדנה כמשפט הבנות יעשה לה (21:8-9)

The Torah gives the master of a female Jewish slave a moral obligation to arrange for her marriage to himself or his son. Who is this maidservant? She is the daughter of a man so stricken by poverty that he sold his young daughter into slavery, hardly a girl that people will be jumping to marry.

In his work Darkei HaShleimus, Rav Shlomo Margolis suggests that this mitzvah teaches us that when it comes to seeking a prospective match, money shouldn’t be the determining factor. Nobody could possibly be as destitute as this maidservant, yet the Torah commands her owner not to see a financially downtrodden girl but a potential wife or daughter-in-law, as money – or the lack thereof – doesn’t reflect in the slightest on the essence of a person and his suitability to be a good husband or wife.

To illustrate this point, Rav Margolis recounts that there was once a student in the Radin yeshiva who returned after a trip to meet a prospective match. The saintly Chofetz Chaim asked him how the encounter went. The young man proceeded to describe at length the tremendous poverty in which the family lived. The sagacious Chofetz Chaim turned to the boy and asked with a smile, “Nu, and what other ma’alos (positive traits) did she have?”


כל אלמנה ויתום לא תענון אם ענה תענה אתו כי אם צעק יצעק אלי שמע אשמע צעקתו (22:21-22)

The Mishnah in Avos (3:17) teaches אם אין דרך ארץ אין תורה, ואם אין תורה אין דרך ארץ – without derech eretz there can be no Torah, and without Torah there cannot be derech eretz. This statement seems to present an enigmatic catch-22 regarding the initial attainment of both Torah and derech eretz.

In his commentary on this Mishnah, Rabbeinu Yonah resolves the apparent contradiction by explaining that the Mishnah is discussing two distinct types of derech eretz. The first derech eretz refers to what is commonly known as essential good manners and interpersonal kills, which one must possess as a prerequisite to Torah study. The second derech eretz refers to an exceptional and heightened sensitivity to others which can only be acquired through learning Torah.

One such example of this sensitivity can be gleaned from our verse, which cautions against causing pain to widows and orphans, who are often among the most helpless and tragic members of society. In doing so, the Torah, which never wastes a word, curiously doubles each of the verbs – three times in one verse! What lesson is the Torah teaching us?

An insight into these seemingly superfluous words may be gleaned from the following story. A young father and husband suddenly passed away one spring day. As his widow struggled to put the family back together and reassure the orphans, she was determined to make the upcoming holiday of Pesach as beautiful as ever, even as she wondered who would sit at the head of the table and conduct the Seder.

As part of the traditional preparations, she took her children to get new shoes in honor of the holiday. The owner of the shoe store, familiar with the tragic plight of the family, attempted to cheer up the children by offering each a shiny balloon. While most of them seemed appreciative and momentarily forgot their troubles, one of the girls walked to the door and released her balloon skyward.

The mother, embarrassed at her daughter’s apparent lack of appreciation for the gift, proceeded to lecture her about the need for respect and gratitude. The innocent girl looked up at her mother, and through a tear-stained face explained her actions: “Daddy didn’t get one.”

Although any humane person would naturally feel compassion for the plight of a poor widow or orphan, the Kotzker Rebbe explains that the Torah is opening our eyes to a finer sensitivity that we are expected to internalize and strive to reach.

Our verse uses three double expressions to alert us that the pain of widows and orphans is twofold. The Kotzker explains that in addition to the natural hurt of the slight or insult which would be felt by any person, the cruel treatment reawakens deep wounds by causing them to think that if only their beloved father or husband was still alive, he could come to their defense. The intense cries which result will immediately arouse Hashem’s compassion, and it is for this reason that the Torah stresses the need to treat them with mercy. Such empathy and consideration couldn’t come from the most sensitive human being, but only from the study of Hashem’s Torah. This, then, is the Torah’s derech eretz!


Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!

To receive the full version with answers email the author at parshapotpourri@optonline.net.


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) A Jewish slave who doesn’t wish to leave his master when the time arrives that he may go has his ear pierced (21:6), and he continues to serve his master until the Yovel (Jubilee year). Rashi explains that the piercing is done specifically to punish the ear which heard at Mount Sinai Hashem’s prohibition against stealing (20:13), and nevertheless proceeded to steal. Rashi writes (20:13) that the prohibition against stealing in the 10 Commandments which were said at Mount Sinai refers to the stealing of people and not to the stealing of possessions. Why is the ear punished for violating a prohibition which it didn’t hear at Mount Sinai? (Chizkuni, Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, Chanukas HaTorah, Maskil L’Dovid, Chiddushei Riaf Ein Yaakov Kiddushin 22b)

2) A judge is required to preserve the integrity of the judicial process, and is forbidden (23:2) to follow the majority in a manner which will distort justice. A judge believes that an accused man is innocent, but he sees that all of the other judges believe that the man is guilty. If he votes according to what he truly believes – that the man is innocent – the man will be convicted and executed. However, if he pretends to agree with them and votes to convict the man, he will be exonerated, as the Gemora in Sanhedrin (17a) rules that if the Sanhedrin unanimously rules to convict a person he is sent free. Is a judge permitted to cast his vote against what he believes is the truth in order to bring about what he believes will be fair justice? (Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh)

3) The Rambam rules (Hilchos Eidus 1:2) that if a potential witness is more learned than the judges on the beis din and it is beneath his dignity to go and testify before them, the honor of his Torah takes precedence over his obligation to testify and he should refrain from doing so. The Rambam rules (Hilchos Rotzeiach 14:4) that if even the greatest person in the generation sees his friend’s animal crouching under its burden, he is obligation to assist his friend (23:5) in unloading the animal. Why does the honor of his Torah exempt him from the mitzvah of testifying but not from the mitzvah of unloading an overburdened animal? (M’rafsin Igri)

4) The Torah forbids (23:8) a judge to receive any form of bribe from either of the litigants. Is he permitted to accept a bribe which is worth less than one perutah, the minimum amount which is legally considered to have any monetary value? (Minchas Chinuch 83:2, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

5) The Gemora in Kerisos (9a) derives from the national “conversion” at Mount Sinai that one of the essential components of conversion to Judaism is immersion in a mikvah. The Gemora asserts that this took place before Moshe sprinkled on them the blood of the sacrifices (24:8), to which ritual immersion is a necessary prerequisite. Where did the Jews find an acceptable mikvah in the middle of the desert? (Shabbos 35a, Sefer Ananei HaKavod)


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