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All in the Family

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This week's Torah portion begins as follows:

"And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them." (Exodus 21:1)

We use the word "and" to connect ideas or words to one another. To discover the word "and" at the beginning of a brand new chapter that is apparently totally unconnected with the previous one is disconcerting. Rashi quotes a Midrash that explains the presence of the connector word "and" as follows:

Wherever the word eleh "these" is used, it disqualifies that which preceded it. But v'eleh, [the syntax of the first verse of the Parsha] meaning literally "and these", is a continuation of that which preceded it. [This comes to teach you] just as the preceding words [the Ten Commandments of the previous chapter] were received from Sinai, these [ordinances] also originated from Sinai. (Mechilta)

But this explanation generates a question of its own. According to Jewish tradition all the commandments and ordinances of the Torah were given on Sinai; what is the need to stress the point of Sinaic origin regarding the ordinances of our Parsha in particular? Why would we think otherwise? There must be something about the laws of this week's Torah portion that would incline the reader to doubt their Sinaic origin.


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In truth, this mysterious factor is quite obvious. The laws of this Torah portion concern matters that are universally dealt with adequately by all legal systems. Such matters do not seem to require special directives from God.

All human societies have laws concerning torts, theft, property and other civil matters. These laws vary from time to time and place to place, but as long as they are clearly drawn and fairly applied, the variations have zero effect on the smooth functioning of society. Why would God concern Himself with this type of law at all? What difference does it make how you settle torts? Why not allow people to handle these sorts of problems on their own?

As a matter of fact, except for the Jewish people, God seems to have followed precisely such a laisez faire policy. One of the seven Noachide laws issued to mankind following the flood obligates human societies to establish judicial systems - courts of law and police forces to enforce their decisions. These courts are charged with the enforcement of the other six Noachide laws, but they also have the duty of overseeing a body of civil law created to settle social disputes. (See Maimonides, Yad, Melochim 9:14.) The Noachide law does not dictate the content of the civil laws or the specifics of their method of administration. The important thing is the establishment of a system of justice. The exact details seem to be irrelevant.

Why single out the Jewish people in this respect? Are Jews less competent than other human beings at drafting laws to manage their civil problems? Why do these laws - known as mishpatim - have to originate in Sinai?


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The Chazon Ish, one of the Torah giants who oversaw the re-establishment of Torah life in Israel following the Holocaust, develops a systematic answer to this question in his work Emuna Ubitochon. He begins his discourse of the topic with the following dramatic illustration:

A new butcher moves into a community where a butcher has been operating for many years. The new man is much younger; he has modern ideas about marketing and packaging, and is full of the enthusiasm of youth. He opens a brand new store to which a lot of people are naturally drawn. The older man cannot compete; his livelihood gradually begins to be threatened.

Some of the best people in town are driven by the situation to come to the aid of the old butcher. They declare their outrage to whoever will listen: the old butcher is an honest merchant who has served the community faithfully and well over a period of many years. He does not deserve to have his livelihood stolen from him just as he is nearing the age of retirement. The new butcher is committing the worst sort of theft by stealing the old butcher's customers.

They organize a boycott against the new store, they dig up every negative fact they can about the new man's character, and they do their utmost to ostracize his wife and children. In short, they chase him out of town.

Now imagine the identical story, except substitute school for butcher. What is at stake is a new modern school that is out to replace the traditional community school and put its teachers out of their jobs.

The emotions stirred up by the stories are identical. If anything, there is a greater sense of moral outrage at the attempt to usurp the livelihood of old teachers to whom many people in town are sentimentally attached from the years of their own youth when they attended the old school as pupils. Teachers also tend to be idealistic, intelligent human beings, who are often much admired in the community.

The human sense of justice leaps to the identical verdict in both cases. Common decency compels people of good will to defend the old against the new. Yet the Torah considers the two instances radically different.

Only someone well versed in Halacha can issue authoritative rulings regarding real situations; but in the case of the two butchers, there are circumstances under which the opening of the new butcher store would constitute an act of hasogas gvul or unlawful invasion of another's territory according to Torah law.

In such circumstances Torah law would regard the new butcher in the same light as it views the rodef, or someone pursuing a fellow Jew with murder in his heart, while the old butcher would be considered the nirdaf, the person being pursued. There is little difference morally between threatening a person's life or his ability to earn a livelihood and provide for his family.

Whoever defends the old butcher against the new is doing the Mitzvah of protecting the nirdaf. The organization of the boycott against the new butcher, the broadcasting of his negative character traits, the ostracizing of his family are all justifiable acts taken to protect the victim against the aggressor. God will reward the people who engage in the activities to help the old butcher for having done a Mitzvah.

In the case of the schools, Torah law favors competition. The Talmud states the guiding principle: "The jealousy between the wise leads to greater wisdom" (Baba Basra 21a). Wisdom is a supreme value in the eyes of the Torah, a value that supersedes territorial rights. The people who are behind the new school are considered the nirdof, the unjustly pursued, while the people defending the old teachers are the rodef.

As such, the people who attack the new school and its staff are engaged in evil acts. The identical activities undertaken for the identical motives go from being considered great Mitzvot, worthy of reward, to the worst sort of evil deeds. The boycott of the new school is theft; the broadcasting of the negative character traits of the new teachers is the worst form of lashon hara, or forbidden speech, the ostracizing of the teachers' families an act akin to murder. God will punish all those engaged in any of these activities.

Our innate sense of justice, our instinct for distinguishing between right and wrong are unreliable guides. If we follow them blindly, we end up causing injury to others and thereby destroying ourselves. God, the One who designed us and wired the instinct to rush to the aid of the underdog into us, felt that it was His duty to teach us to apply our instincts properly. He gave us mishpatim. But why the Jews in particular? Why not all human beings?


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"You are children to YHVH, your Elohim." (Deuteronomy 14:1)

"So says God, 'My first born son is Israel.'" (Exodus 4:22)

God calls us Jews His children. But how does the parent-child relationship we have with God express itself?

It cannot be in the fact that God is our creator, for He is everyone's creator.

It is certainly not expressed in the fact that He gave us commandments. It is masters who issue commands to servants; fathers do not command their children (at least not in my house).

Perhaps we can get a hint by at how such a relationship expresses itself among us human beings. Among humans the parent-child relationship expresses itself in the fact that parents and children share a small intimate world. They live together and communicate their opinions and ideas to each other. Over the course of many years of intimacy, children internalize the values, judgments and priorities of their parents regarding the important aspects of life. They pick up their parents' attitude towards marriage and the importance of relationships. They learn to imitate their way of dealing with relatives and those in the outside world. This is the way the parent-child relationship was meant to work.


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One of the greatest problems of our modern world is that this type of interaction with parents is no longer a part of it. Today's children learn more from their teachers, peers and the media than from their parents not because human nature has altered but for the simple reason that many parents no longer spend much quality time with their kids. Modern society is a culture of orphans. The close-knit nuclear family that transmits its values from generation to generation has receded from the world of the actual and retreated to the realm of the ideal.

But if the close interaction of many years standing is a sine qua non of developing a proper parent-child relationship, how is it possible for human beings ever to be described as God's children? When do we ever live with God on such terms of intimacy?

We must turn to mishpatim for the answer once again and apply the teaching of the Chazon Ish on a deeper level.


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Upon reflection, it is through this portion of the Torah that God expresses himself as our Parent and makes it possible for us to develop ourselves as His children. It is through this area of Mishpatim that He shares His judgments, values and opinions with us. He explains His views on marriage, filial obligations and the correct way to interact with society in great detail. Through these Torah laws that govern the everyday situations of life He instills in us His sense of right and wrong. This need to internalize God's value systems in the manner of children has had a determinative influence on the way we study Torah and the subject matters within Torah whose teaching we emphasize.

A sense of values cannot be imparted through commandments and rituals or prayers. It can only be internalized through discussion and the sharing of opinions. Accordingly, this is exactly how we go about learning Torah - we discuss God's sense of right and wrong intensively so that we can learn to follow it faithfully.

Walk into the study hall of a yeshiva anywhere in the world. You will encounter young people learning together in groups, engaged in heated debate over a lesson of Talmud. The topics covered by the lessons are precisely the ones mentioned. They cover the laws of marriage, of property, how to make deals, when they are final, how much people are bound by their freely promised word and so on.

Over the centuries, and in our own day, many people, including Jews, have dismissed this type of learning as irrelevant Talmudic hair splitting and have dismissed the people engaged in it as so many useless social parasites.

Most people can understand that the learning of Halacha is necessary for people interested in keeping Jewish ritual law. They can understand that the study of Jewish philosophy or mysticism (Kabbalah) is important to anyone interested in developing a closer bond with God. But they do not see the usefulness of studying the Talmud intensively, mastering the minutiae of a legal system that is no longer in effect and has not been so for two thousand years since the Jewish kingdom fell to the Romans.

These critics fail to appreciate the genius of God or the Jewish people. They forget that we need to become God's children.


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Only by studying the Talmud have we Jews managed to remain God's children through all the vicissitudes of our history.

Every heated discussion of a Talmudic topic results in the internalization of God's worldview about some aspect of human life. A person who spends the bulk of his day learning the Talmud is soaking up the atmosphere and culture of God's house. The head of the Talmudic scholar is stuffed with God's opinions about all the issues of human life. He has successfully internalized God's worldview. He is truly God's child.


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It is widely recognized that the fact that the Jewish people managed to survive 2000 years of exile and persecution is related to their fierce dedication to Torah study and observance during this period, but the mechanism that led rise to such dedication is far from clear. Religious rituals and even theological beliefs do not automatically survive the test of time; we have only to glance at the widespread abandonment of Jewish traditions during the past century to realize the fragility of the structure of observance. By identifying the loyalty to traditions during the two thousand year exile we are simply pushing back the mystery of Jewish survival a level. It is clearly related to Torah observance but what is the secret of the survival of observance itself?

I trust that the answer is now clear. In His genius God gave us a method that allows us to remain as close to Him as children are to their parents under any circumstances. Of all His gifts to us the giving of mishpatim was perhaps the greatest gift of all. As long as Jews study the Talmud their dedication to the tenets of Judaism is guaranteed. When they abandon Talmud study the abandonment of traditional Judaism never lags far behind.

The foundation of our relationship with God always rests on Torah learning in whatever historic period. The Sages teach us:

The importance of Talmud Torah, "the Mitzvah of Torah study," outweighs the importance of all the other commandments combined." (Peah 1:1)

It is the study of the laws of mishpatim that keeps our relationship with God vibrant and young.


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One of the most important of the 613 mitzvot is the commandment to love God. This commandment is one of the six that we are obligated to observe constantly, through every second of our lives. (see Biur Halacha, Ohr Hachaim, Ch. 1,1) But how are we supposed to observe this commandment? How is it possible to love God without really knowing Him? The answer of course; we really do know him very well! Through the constant study of Torah we get to know him as well as children know their parents. We do love our parents all the time. In the same way we can love God.

Torah study contributes enormously to the quality of all our Divine service. If we have internalized God's world-view through Torah study, when we pray, we are not contacting some remote stranger, but someone very familiar. When we carry out the dictates of the ritual law, we are not engaged in solemn ceremony. We are spending some time in our Father's house where there are naturally different modes of behavior than those that prevail in the mundane world we live in.


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But the lesson of the Chazon Ish has still another level of depth. It turns out that the mishpatim laws contain the essence of the purpose of our sojourn on earth. To see how, we must explore a Torah concept known as midot.

We all have emotions and desires that help us to release the energy that powers our activities. We have feelings of ambition, love, hate, anger, generosity and so on, and every situation we face in life calls forth some combination of these feelings.

But these emotions cannot be expressed in actions without first being screened. For example, someone makes a cutting remark at your expense. Everyone laughs and you feel deeply hurt and insulted. You are consumed by rage and overcome by a desire for revenge. Rather than act on these feelings, you step back and say to yourself, "Yes, he really should not have said that, the remark really wounded me. But to express the anger I feel would be out of place. His behavior was perfectly acceptable in our common shared society, and I have behaved in similar fashion myself." The mind must always weigh and measure emotional responses and select the response that is appropriate to the circumstances.

In Hebrew, this ability to size up a situation and respond appropriately is called mida (plural midot). This concept has no exact equivalent in English, though it is often mistranslated as "character trait/s." But, in fact, the word mida literally means "measure." It stands for the ability to instinctively "measure" with our minds the appropriateness of our emotions.

Good midot (this is where the translation of "character traits" comes in) are indicative of the person who measures accurately. His actions are always balanced by good reason. Bad midot are indicative of a person who has not worked out a system to measure the appropriateness of his responses to situations very well.

Developing good midot is not only important for social popularity; it is another one of the six commandments that are with us at all times.


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The development of good midot falls under the umbrella of the commandment of veholachta bidrochov, to "follow in God's ways."

We are commanded to model ourselves after God to the extent of our ability, as it is written: "Follow in His ways ..." (Deuteronomy 28:9). Just as He is described as gracious, so should you be gracious. Just as He is called merciful, so should you be merciful. Another way to put this: Imitate His good deeds and the noble midot by which He is described in the Torah. (Talmud, Sota 14a; Maimonides, Book of Mitzvot, Aseh 8)

It is the study of Talmud that enables us to internalize God's attitudes. Applying the solutions provided by the Talmud to the events and relationships of our lives enables us to translate our natural attitudes and instinctive emotional responses into good midot.

Divine Providence orders the events of our lives in a way that ensures that we encounter precisely the situations we require to face in order to be able to express the knowledge we have acquired through our Torah learning and translate this knowledge into midot. According to the Gaon of Vilna, the translation of Torah attitudes into every day life is the purpose of our sojourn in this world. (Even Shlema, Ch.1)

"All is in the hands of Heaven save the fear of Heaven." (Talmud, Brachot 33b)

God gave each of us a body and a soul. Each one of these is programmed by Him and pulls us in certain pre-set directions. God also determines the environmental influences that act upon us through a system of hashgacha pratis, or Divine Providence. What then is left for us to fashion?

The answer is Torah and midot.


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The internalizing of Torah and the development of good midot are the only things that are left to man's free choice. Our midot are the truest expression of our individuality. Our fundamental character traits may have been Divinely implanted but they are invisible and can only be glimpsed through the window of our midot. Our midot reflect the unique way that we have chosen to fulfill the commandment of 'following in God's ways'; they distinguish us from the rest of his children and make us unique. They are the garments that we shall wear through eternity. (Even Shlemo, Ch.1)

Rightly or wrongly, parents are judged by how well or poorly their children turn out. We derive the ability to be God's children from learning Torah and internalizing the laws of mishpatim. The good midot we develop are the reflection we cast back on Our Father. The following passage of Talmud sums it up beautifully:

"You shall love the Lord, your God" (Devarim 6) the name of God should become beloved through your actions; a person should learn how to read the Torah, than master the Mishna and then study with a scholar - after all this his interaction with people should always be charming and pleasant - what do people say about such a person? "His father was wise to teach him Torah," "his teacher did well to teach him Torah," "it is a pity on those who don't learn any Torah", "so-and-so learned Torah," "look how pleasant are his ways, how worked out his actions"; on him it is written, "He said to me, you are my servant Israel, and I can show off with you [so filled I am with pride]." (Isaiah, 49) (Talmud Yuma, 86a)


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