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Clearing Up the Confusion

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

The strongest possible evidence of the importance that the Torah places on ethics is the juxtaposition of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai with the laws that govern the financial interactions between people.

Parshat Mishpatim, which covers these laws, immediately follows the Ten Commandments, ending with the description of the ceremony conducted by Moses to seal the covenant of the Torah.

Nothing could more clearly emphasize the high priority the ethical aspect of life occupies in Judaism.

Thus, the principles of ethics are sandwiched in between two different aspects of our most momentous historical encounter with God. Nothing could more clearly emphasize the high priority the ethical aspect of life occupies in Judaism.

The writings of the rabbis firmly back this idea. Thus the Mishna in Avot, also known as "Ethics of the Fathers," states:

The world stands on three things: on the law, on truth, and on peace, as it is written, Speak the truth with one another; and in your gates judge with truth, justice and peace. (Avot 1:18)

One who wishes to be a devoutly pious person should be scrupulous in matters of civil law and torts. (Baba Kama, 30a)


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According to the prevailing conception, ethical behavior is rooted entirely in the character trait of honesty. Thus an ethical person is necessarily honest, and an honest person is necessarily ethical.

While no doubt there is a correlation between honesty and ethics, nevertheless Judaic sources appear to indicate that there is an essential difference between the two. The trait of honesty seems to make greater demands on those aspiring to possess it than the most scrupulous practice of ethics.

The following passage from the Talmud (Baba Basra, 88a) may be a trifle complex but it makes this point crystal clear.

The rabbis taught: "Someone who is buying cucumbers in the market -- even if he is busy picking through the merchandise the entire day -- has not legally made a final acquisition and is not obligated to separate tithes. But if he resolved in his heart that he wants them and is willing to finalize the deal, he becomes obligated to separate the tithes ... " [At this point the Talmud goes into a discussion of the ramifications of the need to tithe].

But why is it considered a final acquisition now, just because the buyer had reached a decision in his heart to buy?

Indeed, according to Jewish law a transaction involving movable chattels is only completed when the buyer reaches agreement with the seller over the price, the merchandise is weighed, and the buyer takes formal possession. This transaction is therefore legally not yet complete and the buyer has the legal right to withdraw and return the merchandise. Since no money has changed hands, there is not even any moral censure involved in such withdrawal.

Answered R'Hoshaya: "The passage refers to a God fearing man resembling Rabbi Safra who was determined to live up to the verse And speaks the truth in his heart." (Psalms 15)

Rashbam quotes the story of Rabbi Safra:

Once Rabbi Safra was in the middle of reciting the Shema. Someone came over to him and made him an offer for his merchandise. Of course Rabbi Safra did not respond as it is forbidden to interrupt the reciting of the Shema. The buyer mistakenly attributed the lack of response to the inadequacy of his offer and he kept raising the stakes. When Rabbi Safra finished his prayers he gave the buyer the merchandise for his original offer. He had resolved to accept this price in his heart and he refused to accept more money for the merchandise.

When Rabbi Safra finished his prayers he gave the buyer the merchandise for his original offer.

In the same way, explains the Rashbam, the cucumber buyer of our story had resolved to buy the merchandise in his heart. By the rules of "following the truth in one's heart," at that point the sale became final even though by the rules of commerce nothing had taken place. The person who aspires to live by the truth has no choice but to regard the transaction as completed as soon as he reaches a final decision in his heart regardless of the legal position.

(The Talmud in Baba Basra, 88a explains how to work out the complications of a transaction which is completed according to the rules of following the truth in one's heart but legally unfinished.)

Now, we have already shown that it is sufficient to observe the law scrupulously to merit the title of a devout person. Truth is thus clearly a higher standard than devotion. How can we understand this?


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What are honesty and truth, and what other basis than truth can there be to measure the standard of ethical behavior?

The Chazon Ish, one of the great Torah luminaries who revived Jewish learning following the devastation of the Holocaust, explains this in the following way.

The believer who devotes his life to the service of God maintains the conviction that everything he has in life was given to him by God as an intrinsic part of his belief system. Nor is this conviction simply a matter of dogma. It is a crucial aspect of life for anyone aspiring to be God's servant.

A good way to illustrate its necessity is the following story concerning the Chofetz Chaim.

The Chofetz Chaim once came to the synagogue very early one Yom Kippur morning. Generally, at this hour one only found the very poor and otherwise afflicted present, as such people customarily stay up Yom Kippur night reciting the Psalms and pouring their hearts out to God pleading for relief from their tribulations in the coming year.

Much to his surprise, the Chofetz Chaim found one of the wealthiest, most fortunate people in town among the company. He went over to this person and asked him why he had joined the company of the destitute. The rich man answered that he felt he should attempt to change his life and serve God with greater devotion.

The Chofetz Chaim then told him the following parable:

The king has a large army. In this army, there are ordinary soldiers, officers and generals. There is an armored division, and a quartermaster corps, an air force, an intelligence unit etc. In order for the army to be victorious, everyone has to do his own job particularly well. If the pilot decided to drive a tank, or if the general decided to try life as an ordinary infantryman, no matter the amount of zeal and enthusiasm he'd devote to these tasks the army would surely be defeated. The key to victory is for everyone to do his own job to his utmost capacity.

The Chofetz Chaim then explained the parable to the rich man:

"The fact that God showered you with wealth and good fortune indicates that your allotted responsibility is to devote yourself to dispensing charity to the less fortunate. If you take up a life of devotion and the reciting of Psalms you will soon come to feel that this aspect of your life is the most important part of your Divine service. You will soon begin to downgrade your devotion to charity, as listening to people's financial problems seems on the surface to be far less spiritual than acts of simple devotion.

"But your place in God's army is to be the charity dispenser, not the reciter of Psalms. The purpose of your life, and your most important Divine service, is to do your job faithfully and well. The performance of one's Divinely assigned task is the only way to assure oneself of a favorable edict on the Day of Judgment. If you have carried out your charitable duties faithfully, you will have no need to recite Psalms in the middle of the night, and if you have not, such recitation cannot help you. Go home and go to bed."


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All human beings are troubled by the question of what to do with their lives. This question is no less burdensome for someone who wishes to devote his life to Divine service. In order to serve God, he has to know what God wants of him. What is the assigned purpose of his existence? How can he possibly find this out?

Ethics are the key to receiving messages from God that are easily decipherable!

It is in this area that the rules of our Torah portion assume their supreme importance. By leading an ethical life a person can put himself in the position of being able to figure out God's expectations of him. Ethics are the key to receiving messages from God that are easily decipherable!

God follows the rules of Jewish law as stated in the Shulchan Aruch. These laws are all His ideas and He interacts with the world only through them. By studying everything that he has acquired while observing the laws of ethics scrupulously, a person can discover his purpose in life.


He can assume that in a world guided by Divine Providence, everything that he has was given to him by God because he needs it in some way to carry out his purpose in life. Inasmuch as his options in life are determined by his assets, these options are automatically to be understood as the mission assigned to him by God.

In the same way, whatever is acquired without observing these rules to the letter draws the person in the wrong direction. He can be certain that any lifestyle adopted as a result of wrongful gains is not what God intended for him.

Inasmuch as these assets that are not acquired according to the rules of ethics are mixed in with everything else he has, his entire life becomes mired in confusion. The smallest addition of wrongful gains infects the entirety of what he has. He loses God's message and is unable to determine his purpose in life. For there is no way for anyone to understand his task in this world except through studying the resources God distributed to him.


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Let us look at the story of the "little jars" of Jacob to give ourselves an even clearer perspective.

But he got up that night and took his two wives, his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. And when he took them and had them cross over the stream, he sent over his possessions. Jacob remained. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. (Genesis 32:23-25)

The Talmud says Jacob remained on the wrong side of the crossing because he had forgotten some "little jars" there and crossed back to the other side to retrieve them. But to be alone on the wrong side of the ford was dangerous. From the fact that Jacob was willing to endanger himself to retrieve these jars, the Talmud derives the principle that the possessions of the righteous are more beloved to them than their physical safety. The Talmud explains that this apparently misplaced regard for their possessions felt by the righteous arises from the fact everything they have is totally untainted by the slightest trace of theft. (Talmud, Chulin 91a)

All the possessions of a person that are untainted by theft come straight from God.

The commentators explain: All the possessions of a person that are untainted by theft come straight from God. He can assume that all such things were given to him because he requires them to accomplish his Divine service, the purpose of his presence in this world. In a world run rationally by Divine Providence, it is safe to assume that God will not provide anyone with things that are only useless distractions.

Knowing himself to be untainted by theft, Jacob assumed that he would need these jars at some point in his life, otherwise God would never have given them to him. Providing that this assumption was valid, even the fact that he had to place himself in danger to retrieve them meant that was carrying out God's will. If he truly needed them, then any danger he might encounter in the process of their retrieval was not only a danger he would have the ability to deal with, but also a danger God wanted him to confront.

Forgetting the "little jars" was the equivalent of an order from God to go back to retrieve them. Not only was their acquisition through Divine Providence, but the fact that he forgot them was also Divine Providence. The result validated his approach. In fact, God wanted Jacob to wrestle with Esau's angel before he confronted Esau physically.

According to Jewish tradition, which is amply supported by the way the sequence of events is recorded in Genesis, the peaceful meeting between Jacob and Esau was the direct result of the fact that Jacob managed to force Esau's guardian angel to concede his right to the blessings prior to their physical encounter.

In fact, Jacob really did need the "little jars" to carry out his Divine service. The role they played in his life was precisely to cause Jacob to cross back to the other side of the ford and wrestle with Esau's angel. It is quite possible that Jacob discarded them afterwards as in retrospect they had clearly served their purpose.


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If deciphering God's messages lies at the root of ethical behavior, what is meant by the quotation from Psalms And speaks the truth in his heart? How does one live according to the truth in one's heart?

In a nutshell, this can be defined as direct versus indirect communication.

There is a vast difference between getting something directly from God's hands or obtaining it indirectly through acts that are shaped by Divine Providence. The only way to receive anything directly from God is by following the truth in one's heart. When God gives me something directly, it is with Him that I conclude my agreements rather than with people.

When Rabbi Safra was reciting the Shema and someone made an offer for his merchandise, in Rabbi Safra's eyes it was God who was offering to buy his merchandise through the medium of the person who actually mouthed the offer. It was God's offer that Rabbi Safra was accepting, it was with God Himself that he was concluding his arrangements.

God can look into a person's heart and read his thoughts.

God does not require spoken acceptance. He can look into a person's heart and read his thoughts.

If there was no verse teaching us about following the truth in one's heart, than God would not have offered us the option of concluding agreements directly with Him. But as He gave us such a verse in Psalms, He offered us this tremendous opportunity.

Rabbi Safra, who followed this verse as a rule in his life, was in the position to think that the offer he was willing to accept was the one that God was making. If He accepted God's offer, than he could be completely certain that whatever he received was given to him directly by God to use in his service. God's stamp is truth, and the truth underlies all absolute reality. Why would he risk living in confusion by going on with negotiations according to the legalities?

As all Jews are not up to living up to this standard, God offered them the ethical option. The ethical option is less clear, because it is only indirect, and negative traits of greed and covetousness are an inherent part of all human transactions. They teach one about the acceptable rather than the desirable.

Let us conclude with another story about the Chofetz Chaim that highlights the difference.

For a while, the Chofetz Chaim supported his family by maintaining a grocery store in Radin. His wife would tend the store, and he took care of the accounts and kept track of the weights. He would clean the scales daily and test his weights to make sure that he was giving true measure. The scrupulous honesty with which the establishment was run soon brought a rush of customers to his door.

Alarmed that he would destroy the livelihood of the other grocers in town, the Chofetz Chaim instructed his wife to close the store daily at the hour by which they had earned a sufficient amount to meet their daily expenses on the average according to his calculations. The overabundance of customers, a direct result of his own scrupulous honesty, eventually prompted him to close the store altogether for fear of affecting the other grocers' livelihood.

People who live by the truth in their hearts have no need to worry about tomorrow. When you get your livelihood from God's own hands, you want to go back to Him every day.

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