Torah Weekly

For the week ending 21 February 2009 / 27 Shevat 5769

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The Jewish People receive a series of laws concerning social justice. Topics include: Proper treatment of Jewish servants; a husband's obligations to his wife; penalties for hitting people and for cursing parents, judges and leaders; financial responsibilities for damaging people or their property, either by oneself or by one's animate or inanimate property, or by pitfalls that one created; payments for theft; not returning an object that one accepted responsibility to guard; the right to self-defense of a person being robbed.

Other topics include: Prohibitions against seduction; witchcraft, bestiality and sacrifices to idols. The Torah warns us to treat the convert, widow and orphan with dignity, and to avoid lying. Usury is forbidden and the rights over collateral are limited. Payment of obligations to the Temple should not be delayed, and the Jewish People must be holy, even concerning food. The Torah teaches the proper conduct for judges in court proceedings. The commandments of Shabbat and the Sabbatical year are outlined. Three times a year — Pesach, Shavuot and Succot — we are to come to the Temple. The Torah concludes this listing of laws with a law of kashrut — not to mix milk and meat.

G-d promises that He will lead the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, helping them conquer its inhabitants, and tells them that by fulfilling His commandments they will bring blessings to their nation. The people promise to do and listen to everything that G-d says. Moshe writes the Book of the Covenant, and reads it to the people. Moshe ascends the mountain to remain there for 40 days in order to receive the two Tablets of the Covenant.


Freedom From Slavery

“If you buy a Jewish slave…” (21:2-6)

A great Rabbi once described to me a late night learning session he had as a young man. It was about one in the morning and everyone had left the Beit Midrash. Alone, he battled with a tough Tosefot (medieval commentary on the Talmud).

Suddenly he heard the door of the Beit Midrash behind him swing open for a moment and then close again. He said he had to fight hard not to turn around and see who it was that was watching him being such a tzaddik learning away at that hour.

One of life’s great temptations is to do things to impress people.

After six years of labor a Jewish bondsman goes free. He can, however, if he so chooses, remain in slavery until the year of Yovel (every forty nine years). Prior to this extended stay he must be brought to Beit Din, where he stands next to the door and the doorpost, and his ear is pierced with an awl. Rashi explains that the significance of the door and the doorpost is that they are two “witnesses” that can testify that G-d passed over the houses of the Bnei Yisrael when He told the Jewish People that they were his servants exclusively. Someone, therefore, who voluntarily chooses another master should have his ear pierced in their presence.

The age of slavery may seem to have passed from the world, but in many ways it is alive and well and living inside us.

When we make the blessing in the morning thanking G-d that “You did not make me a slave,” we should ask ourselves “Am I really not a slave? Am I really unconcerned about what others think of me? How much of what I do is tailored to impress the outside world? Isn’t that being a slave?”

After the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon defied the Roman ban on teaching Torah, and gathered large groups and taught them publicly. His teacher, Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma, criticized him for putting his life in danger thus. Rabbi Chanina then asked his teacher, “Am I destined for the World to Come?” Rabbi Yosi answered, “Did you ever do something to be worthy of such a fate?” “Yes,” he replied, “Once, by accident I mixed up funds set aside for tzedaka with my own money, and I gave the whole thing to the needy.” “In that case,” said Rabbi Yosi, “May my lot equal yours!”

Why was Rabbi Chanina unsure of what lay ahead of him in the World of Truth? What greater reward can there be than that of someone who risks (and eventually loses) his life to guard the transmission of the Torah to perpetuity? Even more puzzling is Rabbi Yosi’s reply, “Did you ever do something to be worthy of such a fate?” What more could be expected of Rabbi Chanina than he already done?

Any public act can be dangerous; any public act can be tinged with thoughts of, “Now people are going to realize who I really am; now the world is going to know I'm a tzaddik!”

A beautiful etrog, a long Shmoneh Esrai prayer, and burning the midnight oil in the Beit Midrash can lead one to suffer from the enslavement to the desire to impress others.

When you give your own money that got mixed up with the tzedaka, no one sees it, no one is impressed at all — no one, that is, except G-d.

  • Sources: Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe

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