A Just World
Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
Click here to listen to podcast version: https://gallery.mailchimp.com/0de50ed881d65e87d675c02e9/files/c92a0384-96aa-4323-9a44-1749f140659c/Chief_Mishpatim.01.mp3
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) teaches that the very first question we are asked when our souls leave this world, when we account for our lives before our Creator, is, "Did you deal with people faithfully [b'emunah]?"
Emunah - faith - is typically understood as faith in God, in an all-knowing, all-powerful, wholly benevolent Creator who is the source of all things. But what might it mean to have faith in people? To act faithfully with those around us at all times and under all circumstances? To foster a society based on trust and transparency, on honesty and integrity, on goodwill and mutual respect? What might such a world look like?
The Torah tell us exactly what it looks like. This week's parsha, Mishpatim, details many of the mitzvot which govern a well-functioning society, both in terms of commerce and other interpersonal relations more generally. In Mishpatim you'll find what the Torah has to say about ownership, employment, contracts, damage, theft, and many other areas in which people encounter one another on a daily basis. The laws of Mishpatim are elaborated upon in extraordinary detail by the Talmud - literally thousands of pages of painstaking analysis are devoted to them. What emerges is a vast yet intricate framework for a society founded on ethics, integrity, decency and mutuality in every area of human interaction.
But this legal framework helps achieve something beyond the smooth functioning of a society. It in fact lays the platform for the greatest task we have as human beings - enabling the tzelem elokim, the divine image - the spark of pure Godliness within each one of us - to flourish. Through scrupulously observing the mishpatim, the laws that delineate the rights and responsibilities of us as people, we aren't just able get along with each other. We don't just avoid conflict. We set the conditions for real human flourishing.
Essentially, we build a world in which justice, peace and truth proliferate. As the Mishna says, the world stands on three things, "... on justice and on truth and on peace" (Avot 1:18). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues in his commentary on the Mishna that a world without these three elements is a world of chaos - moral chaos and even physical chaos.
A world without justice is a world in which human beings have no rights, in which their dignity, safety and property are constantly under threat. In situations of conflict, if there is no independent, objective arbiter of right and wrong, it becomes anarchy, survival of the fittest.
Similarly, a world without truth is a world without trust - a world in which communication, which is predicated on trust and truth, becomes meaningless, and human connection, which is predicated on communication, becomes impossible.
And, by definition, a world without peace is a world of conflict and tension, a world of constant pain and suffering.
On the other hand, a world of justice, truth and peace is a world in which we recognise and nurture the inherent worth - the tzelem elokim - in others. This is reflected in the statement of the Talmud: "A judge who delivers a judgment of truth becomes a partner with God in creation" (Shabbat 10a). The person whose entire life is dedicated to resolving conflict, establishing just rulings, and sowing peaceful, mutually agreed-upon outcomes, is called "God's partner".
God created a world for human beings to give expression to their tzelem elokim, drawing close to Him and fulfilling their Godly potential. The Torah laws create the conditions under which this is possible, with the judge applying and upholding these laws. A society in which justice, truth and peace aren't in effect is therefore a society at odds with the very purpose of creation.
We see this in the fact that the generation of the flood which stood against these ideals - Rashi points out that the decree of the flood was sealed because of the sin of theft - was ultimately destroyed. The Maharal in his commentary on Rashi explains that commerce and business activity is vital for the development of human civilisation. And of course, disregard for property rights undermines the very foundations of commerce. And without commerce - without the ability to trade and exchange goods and services - and without the drive to be industrious - to create and innovate - human civilisation cannot thrive, or even survive.
And so, from a Torah perspective, the civil laws, the mishpatim, are at the heart of creation. The midrash at the beginning of our parsha makes the point that the Ten Commandments are bookended by sections of the Torah dealing with the laws of human interaction. The section just before the Ten Commandments deals with the establishment of the judiciary and the court system, and the section just after, as we have discussed, deals with the civil laws the judges and courts are tasked with upholding and applying. The midrash points out that the Torah is accompanied by this "entourage" of laws dealing with the pursuit of justice and peace and truth because these are such central Torah values. As the Book of Devarim says, "Justice, justice you shall pursue". Establishing a framework of laws which fosters justice, truth and peace requires real active commitment and dedication.
The Ramban takes this connection between the civil laws and the Ten Commandments further. He says that the civil laws people are specifically linked to Commandment Number 10, "Do not covet". The Ramban goes on to explain that these laws not only improve society - the world around us, but they lead to the internal transformation of a human being - the world within us. It's not just about ethics; a person who respects the rights of others and observes the mishpatim becomes spiritually elevated.
It inculcates a mind-set of contentment and appreciation for the blessings in one's life. The mitzvah "Do not covert" is a warning that jealousy leads down a path of self-destructive madness in which we trample the rights of others in pursuit of our own self-gratification and material wants. In other words, coveting is what leads a person to actions that contravene the Mishpatim. But coveting itself is a mindset. People who aren't jealous of what others have and aren't preoccupied with taking them for themselves are people who are happy with what they have; they understand that the purpose of life is not to accumulate as much as possible, but to live a life of decency and integrity. Such people cultivate a tranquillity of mind and spirit that those always looking around at what others have will never know.
We see that not coveting, and scrupulously observing the mishpatim, is life-changing. It changes our worldview. It changes our mindset. it changes who we are.
It also transforms our faith. The Ibn Ezra explains that the secret to living a life of contentment, and not jealousy and resentment, is trust in God - that everything we need, we have; that if God hasn't given us something, we don't need it, and it's not in our interests to have it. Essentially, this is about living in accordance with the statement of Pirkei Avot, "Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot" (Avot 4:1). This contentment with what we have comes from a deep faith in God, from a deep respect for other people, and from a deep appreciation for the blessings we have been privileged to receive.
Having faith in God means living with a conviction that our livelihood comes from Him. In fact, according to the Shitah Mekubetzet, the very reason why Torah endorses free commercial enterprise (within the bounds of fair and ethical conduct) is because God is the ultimate distributor of the goods of this world. Faith in God is what allows for a freely functioning economy framed by a deep appreciation for the rights of every person.
And ultimately, says Rav Mordechai Gifter, the mishpatim allow a person to transcend themselves. These Torah laws governing fair business and social conduct enable us to step back from own small, self-involved view of the world to recognise and respect others. And to understand and appreciate that each person is a world unto themselves.