Torah Weekly

For the week ending 25 January 2014 / 24 Shevat 5774

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.


The Wisdom of Precision

And these are the laws… (21:1)

At first glance, Judaism seems like an ocean of 'do's' and 'don'ts' — an ocean that's easy to drown in.

The 'New' Testament canard of the "nit-picking legalistic Old Testament" is a familiar anti-Semitic slur down through the centuries.

But why does Judaism seem to be "nit-picking?"

I'm writing this but a short time after the first yartzeit of our beloved Rosh Hayeshiva, Rav Mendel Weinbach zt"l. A few years ago, a member of the Ohr Somayach staff could not get his daughter into one of the 'Ivy League' seminaries in Jerusalem because he had no family or contacts to vouch for them. Despite numerous phone calls and the passing of months, the young lady still had no school. In a state of near-desperation, the father went in to see Rav Mendel. He said, "It's a pity you didn't come to me six months ago. I have a certain influence at that school, but now it will be very difficult."

The beginning of the semester came and went. A week into the semester, the young lady was still sitting at home and sinking not-too-slowly into depression. On the morning of the third day Rav Mendel appeared at the family's home and said to her, "Come, we're going to school." Together they climbed into a taxi and arrived at the school that had rejected her. They walked into the First Year classroom. As they entered, fifty heads turned in unison. Rav Mendel said, "Sit down." And then he proceeded to sit down in the chair next to her.

He would not leave until the school agreed to take her.

In last week's Torah Weekly I recounted the story of one of the great Rabbis of the Mussar (Ethics) Movement whose glove slipped under his departing train and he threw the other glove under the carriage so the person who found the first glove would have a pair.

And who can forget the wonderful story of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who traveled quietly for several miles with his hand trapped in a car door so the driver wouldn't be embarrassed by having slammed the door on the Rabbi's hand?

From where does that great sensitivity come?

From all that "nit-picking".

Torah is the wisdom of precision. Every movement, every feeling, every thought must be weighed and evaluated and checked to see whether it is perfect or not.

The power of Torah lies precisely in its laser-like attention to differences of a hair's breadth. When a person trains himself to be recognize hair's breadth differences in the physical world, the fine line between a glatt kosher shechita and one that was 'glatt treif', he creates in himself the sensitivity to recognize the subtle flaws in his character — flaws which the rest of the world would trumpet as virtues.

However these virtues don't come cheap. They only appear in someone who accepts the Torah as a yoke, who views his Torah observance as obligatory. When life's trials confront us, as they must inevitably do, all our refinement will vanish unless we have been through 'boot camp' — the rigorous regimen of precise mitzvah observance. If our attitude to the Torah is that it's going to give me a better life, better relationships, a faithful spouse, nice festivals, and children who are unlikely to be drug addicts, or if I'm looking for a mystical high, we will not become loftier and more sensitive individuals.

When life's 'ups' inevitably turn into 'downs', our values will also plummet.

Worse, we will excuse our lackings with excuses like, “You can't judge someone when they're under pressure.” And to excuse our failings we will bring as proofs the dicta of the Sages. Inexorably, we will become less and less sensitive until we descend into anger, rage, trickery and the whole lexicon of bad character. And all because we failed to accept the Torah as a yoke.

The sensitivity and character refinement of our great Torah Sages which has no parallel amongst the cultural glitterati of the nations comes from our holy Torah, and can only come from the wisdom of precision.

  • Sources: based on Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt"l; thanks to Rabbi Heshy Grossman

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