> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > The Guiding Light

Torah and Morality

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Shemos, 21:1: "And these are the Mishpatim that you shall place before them."

Rashi, 21:1, Dh: And these are the Mishpatim: "Whenever it says 'these' it comes to exclude what came before it, [and when it says] 'and these', it comes to add to what came before it, just like what came before was from Sinai, so too these are from Sinai."

Rashi, based on the Mechilta, writes that the Torah Portion begins with the words, 'and these' to teach that the laws in Parshat Mishpatim were also given on Har Sinai. The obvious question is that we know that all the Mitzvot were taught to Moshe at Mount Sinai, so why is it necessary to have a special interpretation to teach us the seemingly obvious point that the laws in Mishpatim were included?

One answer given, is that many of the Mitzvot in the Torah Portion involve laws relating to ethical behavior towards one's fellow man, such as the laws of damages, how to treat the destitute, and returning lost objects. Such laws are very logical and easy to understand. Accordingly, a person may think that they are 'man-made' laws, and do not have the same status as Statutes - Mitzvot that no person would have thought of based on common sense. Therefore, the Torah comes to teach that the laws of ethics are also of Divine origin.[1]

A similar approach can be used to explain why the Mishnas of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is the only tractate of Mishna to begin with a recording of the transmission of the Torah from Moshe who received it at Mount Sinai, through the generation to the Men of the Great Assembly. One answer is that Pirkei Avot is a collection of moral teachings, many of which are very logical and easy to comprehend. Therefore, a person may think that these teachings are not necessarily of Divine origin, rather they are logical, ethical statements. Accordingly, Pirkei Avot begins by asserting that the force of moral teachings is that they originate from a Divine source.[2]

One may ask, that, throughout history, societies not based on Torah have had laws involving relationships between people, indicating an inherent appreciation for ethical laws. The answer to this is that these laws do not stem from a belief in what is morally right and wrong, but from a practical realization that it is necessary to have laws in order to prevent anarchy. This is why Pirkei Avot states that we should pray for the well-being of the non-Jewish rulers, because, without the rule of law, 'man would swallow his fellow alive'.[3]

One may also argue that a number of the most basic tenets of Jewish ethics are so self-evident that a society can observe them without needing recourse to the Torah. However, this approach is fatally flawed: Rabbi Ken Spiro[4] taught hundreds of secular Western educated students and asked them what the most fundamental values they believed in. He arranged the answers into six broad categories: Value of life, peace, equal justice, education, family values, and social responsibility. He then analyzed the attitudes of the great, ancient civilizations towards these 'self-evident' values, in particular, the Greek and Roman Empires, who have undoubtedly had an extremely significant influence on modern society.

His results comprise a significant part of his fascinating book, 'Worldperfect'. In short, he demonstrates how alien the Greek and Roman attitudes in the areas of ethics and morality, were in comparison to those cherished today. One example of many is in their attitude to life - in those societies there was a very strong preference for boys over girls, and it was common practice for parents to leave new-born girls in desolate places to die. This was not considered a cruel act at all, indeed, great Greek and Roman philosophers, including Aristotle and Seneca, proposed such behavior as a sensible method of population control. The reason they were able to support such obviously immoral actions, is that they did not have an objective sense of morality, and therefore were able to define to their own liking what constituted 'valid' population control as opposed to illegal or 'immoral' murder. This theme can be found in all the values that seem so obvious to the average Westerner - to the ancient civilizations they were not at all obvious. It was only when the Torah elucidated absolute definitions of what is 'good' and what is 'bad' that beliefs such as the value of life, peace, and education became sacrosanct.

One may nevertheless ask, what the difference is whether the accepted values originate from the Torah or common sense? For the average secular person, this teaches a vital lesson - they grow up with the erroneous belief that the Torah is irrelevant in these modern, 'enlightened' times, when man, through his own knowledge, can lead a moral life. This idea demonstrates that the Torah is extremely relevant to contemporary life as it is the source of the most cherished values.[5]

For those who accept the Torah's teachings, this lesson is still of great importance for two reasons. Firstly, even in the realm of Interpersonal relationships, there are numerous instances where the Torah's definition of what is ethical would not necessarily fit with common sense. For example, in this week's Portion, the Torah instructs us to help unload the donkey of one's fellow man. This is very easy to understand, however, the Gemara explains that if there are two donkeys that need loading or unloading, and one of the owners of the donkey is your enemy, then one must give preference to him, in order to overcome one's natural inclinations to not help one's enemy. A person purely using his own 'intellect' would not come to this conclusion himself. This reminds us that we should approach all of the Torah's ethical teachings as Divine decrees, even if we think we would observe them without the Torah's instructions.

A second reason why it is essential to remember the Divine source of ethical Mitzvot, is that if a person treats them as purely logical actions then he is more likely to forget to have the requisite intent in order to fulfil a Mitzva. The Chofetz Chaim[6] rules that in Interpersonal relationships, if one does not have the intent to do the Mitzva then it is as if he did nothing. Numerous actions we perform throughout our daily lives are in this category - including paying for buses or taxis, helping our wives, children or students, and giving charity. By reminding oneself that he is doing these actions because they are mitzvot, a person transforms his day from a collection of mundane actions to numerous mitzvot.

May we all merit to remember that our attitude in keeping Mishpatim should be no different than in keeping Statutes.


1. See Divrei Aggadah, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Parshat Mishpatim.
2. See Meiri, Introduction to Pirkei Avot.
3. Pirkei Avot, 3:2.
4. Senior lecturer for Aish HaTorah.
5. It is true that those values have been diluted or distorted by the secular humanist influence that says that morality is subjective. Hence, for example, the increase in euthanasia as a 'justifiable' form of murder.
6. Ahavat Chesed, Chelek 2, Chapter 23, hagah.

Related Posts

1 2 3 2,889

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram