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Sculpting the human character is a free will exercise.
We have already devoted a previous essay to the issue of the need for Torah Mishpatim – see Clearing Up The Confusion. Mishpatim are laws that are devoted to civil relationships. They define personal liabilities and obligations regarding civil matters such as theft, personal injury, financial and marital obligations, labor employee relationships, contracts – in short, areas of law that are covered by the legal codes of all human civilizations.
Superficially, the sorts of laws and solutions that are proposed to deal with such situations are all equally valid. The important consideration behind such laws is not their specific contents, but their capacity to encompass the broadest possible range of problematic situations and to offer fair solutions that resolve the conflicts they engender. As long as they are comprehensive and reasonable, any system would appear to be the equal of any other.
Yet, Mishpatim occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Torah laws. To emphasize their importance, many of them are listed in our parsha, which immediately follows the acceptance of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Nachmonides (Exodus 21:1), points out that the Divine editorial decision to place them in such close propinquity to the Ten Commandments reflects God's attitude regarding the importance of their observance; the spiritual level of Israel in God's eyes is directly correlated with the dedication to their observance. We propose to explore some of the aspects of this dependency in this essay.
Let us begin with the thesis that Nachmonides himself presents. Mishpatim are important as they spell out in detail the requirements of the proper observance of the Tenth commandment, You shall not covet your fellow's house. You shall not covet your fellow's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow. (Ibid., 20:14) Explains Nachmonides: the observation of this commandment requires a clear demarcation of what belongs to a fellow Jew in all these areas; it must be clear that this is his house, his wife etc.
Rabbi Chaim Vital, the student of the Ari, expands this explanation: spiritual matters are arranged in groups of ten reflecting the ten Sefirot – in all such arrangements the first nine levels always find their clearest outward expression in the tenth. Thus, the level of his observance of the tenth commandment faithfully reflects the degree of a Jew's acceptance of the first commandment, which obligates him to conduct his life in a way that reflects his belief in an all-powerful God.
If he believes in an all knowing, all-powerful God, he will regard the division of assets in the world as divinely ordained. The things that belong to his friend were designated by God to be his friend's rather than his. To actively covet someone else's possessions is tantamount to questioning God's judgments, and demonstrates a lack in the acceptance of the first commandment.
We can further expand our understanding of this idea with the help of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto's exposition on the workings of Divine Providence. (Derech Hashem Ch. 2:3) God sends us all down to this world to work on our characters and thus correct our spiritual defects. Every individual is placed in the particular life situation by Divine Providence that will compel him to contend with the very defects in character that he was sent down here to correct.
Someone who was born to correct the traits of cruelty and haughtiness will either be born with a silver spoon in his mouth or acquire wealth. Rich people are constantly bombarded by pleas for their assistance and have to struggle with their instinct not to be bothered and not to give. In addition, as people who need to apply to their generosity tend to flatter and praise them, they are also forced to battle with the natural human tendency towards pride and haughtiness.
On the other hand, others were sent to the world to contend with the tendency to self-pity and bitterness. They are born poor or become so, and have to maintain a cheerful attitude in the face of the vicissitudes of their lives, and accept their lot as God given and not blame it on other people or the injustice of society.
But doesn't this contradict the idea that our purpose in life is to observe Torah? The answer, of course, is that there is no contradiction at all. We work on our characters by observing the laws of the Torah. The rich man is not obligated under Torah law to share all his wealth. He is obligated to give away ten percent to charity. It is commendable of him if he gives twenty. That is his Torah obligation; the Mitzvah of Tzedaka is the guide to the proper level of generosity the Torah deems appropriate in the human character.
As the rich man's obligation to perform his Mitzvah encompasses within it the need to perform it cheerfully and with a smile, he can take pride in his acts of generosity only as much as anyone takes pride in the proper observance of their duties and obligations. Everyone has duties and obligations which correspond to the situation in which they were placed by the decisions of Providence. Each person must fulfill his situation related Torah obligations cheerfully and with a smile. There is nothing special in the rich man's situation in this regard, and therefore there is no room for the development of haughtiness. Giving Tzedaka is his obligation.
On the other hand, the poor man is forbidden to speak badly of his more advantaged fellow by the laws of lashon hora. He cannot sink into the morass of self-pity as he must go on about his life despite the difficulties of his situation carrying out his other Torah obligations to the letter. If he has a job, he is commanded to carry it out to the best of his ability, giving full, honest return for the compensation offered. The Torah does not allow him to undermine his firm out of a sense of bitterness or exploit his employer by taking time off or malingering on the job or by indulging in petty theft [private phone calls on the office line etc.] even if such practices are commonly accepted by the culture of his workplace.
In fact, it is in this area, the molding and shaping of the human character, that we must look to discover the significance of Mishpatim. It is only the existence of Mishpatim that makes the sculpting of the human character a free will exercise.
To appreciate how this must be so, let us place ourselves in the situation of the secular person who doesn't enjoy the privilege of having been issued with Torah Mishpatim which he is obligated to obey.
John is a wealthy man who is always being approached by people for various causes. John is a nice man, who really wants to help, but he is at a disadvantage when it comes to positive character transformations. He has no absolute standard to guide him. Thus when he is faced with having to make choices in those areas where his generosity is tested, he only has his feelings to follow. When he feels like responding and offering a helping hand he does, and when he doesn't feel like it he doesn't. The very idea of surmounting his feelings is a non-starter. Why would he? What standard could guide him to such conduct?
Human feelings are the final results of a combination of complex inputs: John's sense of right and wrong, which were instilled by the moral education provided by his parents and society, his level of cynicism concerning the motivations his fellow human beings who are after his money which are largely based on his experiences to date, how he is feeling that day and how the market is doing. These are only some of the inputs that determine the feelings that any petition calling for a demonstration of his generosity will generate. Moreover the contribution of any of these factors will vary from individual to individual.
Without a Divine standard, there are no real choices. None of us can program ourselves how to feel about situations or people in the short run, and we have no meaningful alternative to acting upon the feelings we experience. We are therefore effectively unable to change our characters through making our own independent free will choices. That is not to say that our characters remain static. We are all transformed by what we do – our actions transform us and they automatically become a part of the pool of our experiences that shape our characters and our feelings.
All human actions are taken in response to life situations that arise spontaneously. Because our feeling responses to these situations are the results of our prior programming as explained above, and because the responses we make automatically reshape our characters, it is life that forms and shapes our character in the final analysis. It is not we who shape ourselves.
But now let us contrast this with the situation of the Torah observant Jew who is obligated to observe Mishpatim by looking at the way the same sort of situation that confronted John will affect Reuben. Reuben is also a nice man, who has feelings based on the same sort of phenomena that shaped John's. But Reuben also has Mishpatim. When someone approaches Reuben for help, he is faced with a genuine choice. On the one hand, he has a feeling about how to respond. But on the other hand, there is an objective Torah law written by God Himself that applies to his particular situation which indicates how to respond to the situation in the Torah way.
Reuben is therefore confronted with the following choice. Should he follow his own feelings in choosing his response, or should he follow the Torah response? When he faces this choice, Reuben is also armed with the information that he was sent into the world to reshape his character according to the standards set forth by the Torah. If Reuben takes this task to heart, he will ignore or suppress his own feelings and carry out the Torah directed response. As all actions shape character, his action will transform his character in the direction approved by God. Thus, through making a choice between the two alternative guides to behavior – his feelings on the one hand, and Mishpatim on the other – Reuben is in a position to transforms his character through the exercise of free will.
If he chooses to follow his own feelings, he transforms his character in a negative way from a Torah standpoint, whereas if he elects to follow the Torah response, he is carrying out his mission in the world and correcting his character in line with the Torah's dictates. Unlike John, Reuben will be held to account on judgment day for the shape of his character. In contrast to John, God offered Reuben free will choices in the area of character formation. He gave him Mishpatim.
But John, having been given no absolute standard to follow, has no meaningful choices to make in this area. In the absence of meaningful alternatives, it is a given that he will act on his feelings, and therefore he will never be held to account for the shape of his character. This makes it clear that the formation of character cannot be the purpose of John's life. You cannot ask anyone to do any job for which you do not supply him with the tools to accomplish. It is little wonder that many secular thinkers maintain that character is destiny and find the concept of free will difficult to accept. If you have no standard by which to reshape your character you are inevitably compelled to follow the lead of your feelings, and these are the products of your experiences rather than your choices.
But there are deeper ramifications to these ideas. As the secular person follows man-made laws in the civil areas of life that were fashioned to solve social problems, he naturally does not regard the civil law as a guidepost to proper human behavior. The legal system is there to organize society and to settle disputes, and was never designed to serve as a guide to proper moral behavior. As such, it is totally unrelated to issues of character and there is little point to studying it or knowing it. The secular person only turns to the law when he needs to settle a dispute with his fellow, and then only if no compromise solution can be arrived at.
But the Torah observant Jew must learn and know the Mishpatim of the Torah. While Torah Mishpatim are also employed to settle disputes, that is not their main function or purpose. The Torah Jew studies Mishpatim to know how to observe the Tenth commandment properly. He needs to know the demarcation line between what is clearly his and what is clearly his friend's, and to define the middle zone where he is morally allowed to compete with his friend over the acquisition of assets.
Jews study Mishpatim because it is only through the vehicle of Mishpatim that they can reshape their characters in line with God's prescription. Inasmuch as correcting one's character defects is the primary purpose of human life, the study and knowledge of Mishpatim is an absolute essential of leading a meaningful and productive life.
The stereotype of the Talmud student who spends his time passionately arguing over subtle nuances of Torah law begins to assume some coherence. To fully appreciate him and his activities we must explore yet another area of life that is transformed by the existence of Mishpatim.
We human beings spend a lot of time in each other's company. Because we are intelligent communicators, in effect this means we spend a lot of time talking to each other. But we often do not have much to talk about. No one can begin to discuss deep personal issues that reach to the depth of his soul with a relative stranger. First of all, revelation makes one vulnerable, and even more importantly, no one is particularly interested in gazing deeply into the soul of relative strangers.
Consequently, much light conversation concerns politics, sports or the weather, or tends to center around job conditions and co-workers. This may be boring but allows civilized contact to continue. When it is not boring it often borders on lashon hora, gossip. Almost inevitably, casual acquaintances begin playing human geography. They discuss bosses, co-workers, teachers or fellow students, and the discussion often descends to gossip, or lashon hora.
We Jews share this need for human contact with the rest of humanity. But God gave us a better solution to solve the problem of casual conversation. If we all had the benefit of a basic Torah education, we would all be quite familiar with the basic Talmud tractates which focus on Mishpatim. The traditional wisdom of the ages has assured that it is this area of the Torah that we focus on during the basic education period.
Theoretically, in a properly arranged Jewish world, instead of discussing sports or the weather, or playing Jewish geography, we Jews would debate concepts in Mishpatim. Instead of having to conduct boring conversations, we would be in the enviable position of being able to engage in heated discussions about deep ideas affecting the human character with relative strangers. Instead of gossip, the air would be filled with the sounds of heated debate over basic human issues. If we were fortunate, we might someday be in a position to resurrect that much-ridiculed stereotype of the Talmudic scholar.