Parshas Mishpatim: Common Sense Through the Lens of Torah

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Mishpatim, the Torah commands us regarding numerous mitzvos, mostly mitzvos bein adam l’chavairo (those mitzvos which govern interaction between man and fellow man). 

After the great Revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah in last week’s parsha, Parshas Yisro, we are now commanded regarding how to be a nation and form a society, how to interact with others, treat others, respect others… how to be a mentch through the lens of Torah. 

According to Sefer Ha’Chinuch, there are fifty-three mitzvos in this week’s parsha, 23 mitzvos asay (positive commandments) and 30 mitzvos lo ta’aseh (“you shall not do” commandments).  Amongst the myriad of mitzvos outlined in the parsha, the pasuk tells us: כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן – Any widow or orphan you shall not afflict (Shemos 22:21).  Rashi adds an important clarification to this mitzvah: הוּא הַדִּין לְכָל אָדָם – This is the law for every person

Does the Torah really need to tell us not to afflict others, not to bother others, not to harass or take advantage of others, not to verbally (אוֹנָאַת דְּבָרִים) or financially oppress (בִּגְזֵלַת מָמוֹן) others (22:20 w/ Rashi there)? 

Apparently, it does.  What we may consider to be “common sense” often becomes lost or muddled, trampled upon or ignored, disregarded or forgotten, in society at large.  The Torah wants us to live ennobled lives and to never forget that our fellow man must be treated with dignity, respect and a kind word. 

If the Torah warns us regarding these “common sense” matters, then they are not common sense at all.  They are the Divine word of Hashem, of the same import and significance as eating matzah on Pesach, tekiyas shofar on Rosh HaShanah and fasting on Yom Kippur.   

In its wisdom, Mishlei tells us that: מָ֣וֶת וְ֭חַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁ֑וֹן – Death and life are in the hands of the tongue (Mishlei 18:21).  It is compelling to note that not only is our own life in the hands of the tongue, but so is the life of the receiver (listener) of our words.  With affliction and verbal harassment we can bring others down, R”L; and with positive and encouraging speech we can build others up. 

There once was a young boy with a very bad temper.  The boy’s father wanted to teach him a lesson, so he gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper he must hammer a nail into their wooden fence.  On the first day of this lesson, the little boy had driven thirty-seven nails into the fence.  He was really mad!

Over the course of the next few weeks, the little boy began to control his temper, so the number of nails that were hammered into the fence dramatically decreased.  It wasn’t long before the little boy discovered that it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.  Then the day finally came when the little boy didn’t lose his temper even once, and he became so proud of himself, he couldn’t wait to tell his father.  Pleased, his father suggested that he now pull out one nail for each day that he could hold his temper. 

Several weeks went by and the day finally came when the young boy was able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.  Very gently, the father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.  “You have done very well, my son,” he smiled, “But look at the holes in the fence.  The fence will never be the same.”

The little boy listened carefully as his father continued to speak.  “When you say things in anger, they leave permanent scars just like these.  And no matter how many times you say you’re sorry the wound will still be there.”

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l teaches that, “Judaism believes that words per se are the most powerful weapon G-d has provided man.  Judaism believes in the power of the mind and the majesty of the word.  Through the word, G-d created the world.  G-d did not need words to create the world, but He chose the word as the instrument of creation in order to teach us that we can create the world through the word – and can destroy the world through the word.  The word can be the most creative power in man’s hands, but is can also be the most destructive power given to man.  That is why Judaism is almost merciless with regard to lashon ha’rah, evil speech, and why it takes so seriously the issues of perjury, vows and oaths. 

“In Judaism, the word is the mark of one’s identity as a human being, in contradistinction to a beast or brute.  In medieval Hebrew, the name for man is medabber, the ‘speaker,’  Judaism believes in the potency of the word.  It is not just a sound, it is not just phonetics – it has a mystical quality to it.  Hence man’s awareness of G-d must be objectified in the word.  And they all open their mouth in holiness and purity, in song and hymn, and bless, praise, glorify, revere, sanctify and declare the kingship of G-d’”.

While Parshas Yisro tells us about the other-worldly experience of ma’amad Har Sinai, Parshas Mishpatim, reminds us of the down-to-earth life and practices of the Jew.  For common sense through the lens of Torah is truly the exalted word of G-d which permeates our daily lives. 

כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן – Any widow or orphan you shall not afflict.

We would do well to remember that the Sages teach, in reality: הוּא הַדִּין לְכָל אָדָם – This is the law for every person.  For a fence full of holes will never again be truly complete.

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום,

Michal

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