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Good Is Not Good Enough

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

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

This week's Torah portion opens with the words "V'eileh hamishpatim - And these are the ordinances ...." At first glance, it seems grammatically inappropriate to commence a chapter with the conjunction "and," but nothing in the Torah is to be taken for granted. Every letter, every syllable, every punctuation mark comes to teach us a lesson. The conjunction "and" reminds us that this parashah is connected to the preceding one, in which Revelation - the giving of the Torah - takes place, teaching us that even as the laws in the previous parashah were given at Sinai, the commandments pertaining to civil laws that are the focus of Parashas Mishpatim were also proclaimed at Sinai.…But would we not understand this on our own? Do we really require the conjunction "and" to remind us that all of the Torah emanates from Sinai? Sadly enough, yes!

Most of us have a tendency to rationalize regulations that deal with our interpersonal relationships. It is "our life," we argue, and therefore we have the right to determine what is appropriate or inappropriate. The Torah, however, reminds us that it is only the One Who created us Who can make such a determination. Only He can decide what is honest or dishonest, kind or cruel, moral or immoral, and precisely because of that, the Torah reminds us that those laws that legislate our personal relationships also emanate from Sinai, just as do the rituals and ceremonies enumerated in Parashas Yisro, which govern our relationship with God.

This message speaks to our generation, for we tend to interpret laws to accommodate our own needs and predilections. Morality, honoring parents, gossip, inflicting pain and injury, theft, can all be manipulated to justify our own desires. No matter how selfish our behavior may be, we can find a rationale for our actions or inactions. We pride ourselves on being good people who deal fairly, and forget that the Torah does not specifically command that we be "good." The word "good" is too ambiguous: every culture, every society, even the most base, has its own interpretation of goodness. Moreover, the definition of "good" is ever changing. That which yesterday was termed good may no longer be considered so today, and the converse is also true. That which in the past was regarded as evil and immoral can, regrettably, today be viewed as good and moral.

But the goodness by which we live, which was legislated at Sinai, is rooted in eternity. It comes from God Himself, Who created us. Thus, our Torah defines "good" and tells us how we must interact in our relationships on a personal, intimate level as well as in our general interaction. Nothing is left to chance. Life is too precious; we can't afford to live it in error. Therefore, everything emanates from Sinai, showing us how to live a good life.


There is yet another dimension to this connection between Sinai and our civil laws. As noted above, the Ten Commandments open with the words, "I am Hashem, Your God." By placing the laws of business ethics after the Ten Commandments, the Torah teaches us that he who is not ethical in business does not really trust God, for if he believed in Divine Providence, he would understand that, ultimately, it is God Who provides, it is He Who determines our income and therefore, it is futile to cheat, steal, or surrender to greed, for in the end, it will all catch up with us. We cannot outsmart God.

This connection once again reminds us that we must adhere to our moral and ethical laws, not necessarily because they appeal to our intellect, but because they were legislated by God and guide our behavior in the workplace as well as in the synagogue. This is a lesson that we dare not forget: "The beginning of wisdom is fear of Hashem."[1] If we lack that awe and awareness, all our wisdom, all of our morals and ethics can be twisted, corrupted, and rationalized to justify the most horrific evil. Just consider the evil that has and continues to plague us in our "civilized" and "enlightened" 20th and 21st centuries.

The Torah gives us a mandate to strive to emulate God and live by His commandments. Even as He is compassionate, we must strive to be compassionate. Even as He is forgiving, we must be forgiving. Our ethics and morals are all from Hashem, and are therefore immutable and non-negotiable. How blessed are we to have laws that guarantee the integrity of our human interaction ... and what a pity it would be to be unaware of this gift.

This teaching is reinforced throughout the Torah. So it is that the Ten Commandments are engraved on two tablets: one for those establishing a relationship between man and God, and one for those establishing a relationship between man and his fellow man. The two tablets remind us that both relationships are equally holy. It was also for this reason that during Revelation, God pronounced all Ten Commandments simultaneously, so that it would be clear that no one commandment takes precedence over another. Moreover, a special section in the Mishnah is entitled Ethics of Our Fathers. It deals with human relations, but significantly, it commences with the monumental words, "Moses received the Torah from Sinai,"[2] once again impressing upon us that all our ethical and moral commandments are of Divine origin. In a world in which values, ethics, and morals seem to have lost their meaning, how powerful it is to know that our Torah has anchored us to timeless truths.

Even on a most elementary level, 21st-century man has yet to accept "You shall not kill." From Hitler to Arafat to Bin Laden to Ahmadinejad, it is obvious how desperately man needs God to regulate his behavior.

  1. Psalms 111:10; Proverbs 9:10.
  2. Ethics of the Fathers 1:1.

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