Torah Weekly - Parshat Mishpatim

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Parshat Mishpatim - Shekalim

For the week ending 1 Adar 5761 / February 23 & 24, 2001

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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.

    Hashem 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 Hashem 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.




    "And these are the ordinances" (21:1)

    A frequent canard leveled against Judaism is that it is a nit-picking legalistic system which puts ritual above righteousness. The New Testament's "Good Samaritan" story is a prime example of this libel. In fact, Christianity made a religion out of its rejection of Judaism's supposed "legalistic myopia."

    This week's Torah portion contains a long list of "legalisms": A husband's obligations to his wife; penalties for hitting people and cursing parents, judges, and leaders; financial responsibilities for physically damaging someone or their property; payments for theft and penalties for not returning an object that one accepted responsibility to guard; the right to self-defense for a person being robbed. The list of "legalisms" goes on and on.

    Judaism teaches that there is no difference between so called "ritual" law and laws concerning our fellow man. There is no difference between a mezuza, Shabbat, tefillin on the one hand, and the obligation to honor our parents or feed the poor on the other. The object of all these laws is one and the same -- that we should be a holy people.

    It's not sufficient that justice should be done. The Torah requires that we should become a people whose very nature is to do justice, that this is who we are; that justice and righteousness are our very essence -- not merely a pragmatic relationship with our fellow beings.

    Judaism is a system where one's every thought and action can be suffused with holiness. Nothing in this world is devoid of the opportunity to be used to elevate ourselves and mankind. No activity is beyond the potential for holiness. This is what the world mistakes for "ritualism" and "legalism." The genius of Judaism is that it sees the potential for holiness even in the ordinary and the mundane. There is no such thing as a secular world versus a religious world. In Judaism there is no such thing as "church versus state." For there is nowhere in this world that is devoid of G-d. Every single thing in this world has the potential to be used, or refrained from, in the ascent of man to his Creator.

    If something literally had "no use" -- it would also have no ability to exist. For that which is truly use-less has no merit to be and, by definition, could not exist.

    You might think, however, that when it comes to social justice, there's not a lot to choose between Judaism and other religions and systems of morality.

    You'd be wrong. Even though the Torah's code of social justice is superficially similar to other codes, there's an enormous difference.

    And that difference lies in one Hebrew letter at the beginning of this week's parsha. That letter is vav. The letter vav at the beginning of a word means "and." Rashi explains that the reason our parsha begins "And these are the ordinances" rather than just "These are the ordinances" is to connect this week's parsha to last week's. This is to teach us that just as the laws of man's relationship with G-d such as those outlined in last week's parsha come from Sinai, so too do the laws of social justice comes from Sinai.

    The rest of the civilized world also legislates social justice. The difference between their enactments and Judaism, however, is that one small letter at the beginning of our parsha -- And. No society can exist without some code of acceptable behavior, but the difference between the Torah and every other system of laws is enormous -- no man-made law can withstand the onslaught of a person's baser instincts. In times of trial and test, these laws go "out the window."

    Rivers of innocent blood have flowed in wars in every era, including our own, in spite of the fact that "You shall not murder" is a universally accepted tenet.

    This is what gives the Torah's code of social justice power and durability thousands of years after its institution.

    • Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin

    Haftara - Parshat Shekalim

    Melachim II 12: 1-17


    Jealousy, lust and pride: According to our Sages, all of our mistakes and sins can be categorized under these three headings.

    This week we read Parshat Shekalim, the first of four special readings leading up to Pesach. These readings represent the spiritual cleansing that must take place in the heart of every Jew to become worthy of the exodus from Egypt. We must rid ourselves of jealousy, lust and pride before we can become worthy of the title "Am Kodosh" G-d's holy nation.

    The parsha of shekalim contains the formulation for the correction of jealousy. The jealousy of Joseph's brothers led them to sell him for twenty silver pieces. The correction for this sin is contained in the designation of the half shekel given to the Temple.

    Unlike the other donations to the Temple, regarding the half shekel the Torah commands us that "the rich man may not give more, nor the poor man less." Thus the total equality of every Jew is ensured and the possibility of jealousy is erased.

    • Rabbi Mordechai Miller explaining Pri Tzaddik

    Written and Compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair
    General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
    Production Design: Michael Treblow

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