Torah Weekly

For the week ending 29 January 2011 / 23 Shevat 5771

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
Library Library Library


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.


Rights And Obligations

“When you lend money to My people…” (22:24)

I live in a city of kindness.

In Yerushalyim, if your daughter suddenly becomes engaged and you don’t have a bottle of whisky to make the customary l’chaim with family and friends, don’t worry, look in the phone book and call the gemach!(A gemach is a free loan organization.)

You’ll be able to borrow a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label (could even be gold – I don’t think they stretch to green or blue). Later on, just replace what you took. No charge.

There are gemachim for virtually everything under the sun. Let’s say it’s Shabbat, the drugstores are closed and you need a certain unusual antibiotic. No problem. There are people with gemachim of medicines in their homes that rival a commercial drugstore. There are gemachim for clothes, chairs, cameras, tapes, tables, telephones, money, free advice hotlines, mezuzot, tefillin, bridal outfits, wigs, cooking gas cylinders, baby strollers, cribs, lactation pumps, drills, saws and other tools, embroidered cushions to bring a Jewish baby to the arms of the Sandek for his Brit Mila. In fact, I have a friend who has a talent for dreaming up new gemachim for people.

And Yerushalyim isn’t alone in its kindness. Many, many cities share this distinction. We are a kind people. It’s in our genes.

Gemach is an acronym for Gemilut Chessed – the bestowing of chessed.

There is no word for charity in Hebrew. Look up the word for charity in the English/Hebrew dictionary and you’ll find the word tzedaka.

Tzedaka doesn’t mean charity. It means ‘righteousness’.

There’s no such thing as a “Robin Goodfellow” in Jewish thought. We believe a person who gives charity doesn’t deserve a slap on the back – someone who doesn’t give ‘charity’ deserves a slap on the wrist.

If you look in the Written Torah there's not a single mention of the word ‘rights’. On the other hand the Written Torah is full of obligations. Look at this week’s Torah portion: Obligations of a master to a slave; the obligations of a child to its parents; of a pupil to his teacher and vice versa; of a community to the poor; of the individual to the community; obligations to the orphaned, to the sick, to the convert; the obligations of man to G-d. ‘Rights’, however, are something that the Written Torah never mentions. Why?

Because to the extent that I have obligations — you don’t need rights.

You can construct a legal system that spells out people’s rights or you can write a code that lists their obligations:“…all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...” comes to the same thing as “And these are the laws that you should put before them…” The end result will be the same.

But with one big difference.

A system that focuses on rights breeds a nation of takers. One that focuses on obligations creates a nation of givers.

Linguistic idiom reveals national character. In English, we say “My duty calls.” Meaning, I start off unencumbered by obligation. My obligation calls to me. I am over here and my duty is over there. If I’m a good person I will heed that call. But still, my duty calls. I have to go to it. In the Holy Tongue, we talk about a person being ‘yotzei chovotav’ - literally ‘going out from his obligations’. In other words, a Jew starts off by being obligated. He doesn’t have to go anywhere or heed any call. Life and obligation are synonymous.

There are three places in the Torah where the Hebrew word “im” is not translated by its usual meaning “if” but “when”. One of those in this week’s Torah portion:

“When you lend money to My people…”

Lending money to the poor is not optional — it’s obligatory.

What reads like an “if” to the rest to the world, to the people of G-d is a “when”.

  • Sources: Rashi; Rabbi Uziel Milevsky, zatzal

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