For the week ending 13 February 2021 / 1 Adar 5781

Parashat 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 — for Pesach, Shavuot and Succot — we are to come to the Temple. The Torah concludes this listing of laws with a law of kashruth to not cook or mix milk and meat.


Handle With Care

“If a person steals an ox…” (21:37)

People are sensitive. I know… I'm one of them. Having been educated in the Empire-Building English Public (i.e. Private) School system, where “big boys don't cry,” I can tell you that however stiff your upper lip may be, inside we are all softies.

In this week's weekly Torah portion, the Torah tells us that a thief who slaughters or sells a stolen ox has to pay five times the value to its owner. However, if he does the same with a sheep, he only has to pay four times, because he has already paid part of his penalty with the embarrassment and humiliation he felt during the theft by carrying the sheep across his shoulders. One would not place sheep-stealers among mankind's most sensitive beings, yet the Torah evaluates a sheep-stealer's embarrassment as calculable in hard cash.

The Talmud (Yevamot 44b) permits or even mandates birth control in the case of a widow who is breast-feeding her deceased husband's child and then re-marries. We are concerned that should she become pregnant and her milk sour, the current husband might be unwilling to pay for milk and eggs to feed the baby. Then she will have to go to Beit Din to claim child support from the beneficiaries of the dead husband. She may be too embarrassed to do this, and there is danger that the baby may not receive adequate nutrition and die.

Is there any greater love than a mother for her baby? And yet we are still concerned that embarrassment and humiliation may vie with motherly love.

It is certainly much easier to be sensitive to ourselves than to others. But at some level, even those who seem the least sensitive feel embarrassment and hurt. Everyone deserves to be “handled with care.”

  • Source: Rashi, Chidushei HaLev

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