At the end of last week’s Parasha, Am Yisrael receives the Holy Torah on Har Sinai. Immediately following this momentous occurrence in our history, Parashat Mishpatim tells us: now that you have accepted the Torah, get busy and start learning all its Laws and Ordinances. Learn how you’re supposed to conduct yourselves as the chosen nation both for your own sake and to set an example to other nations.
This is the reason that the Parasha beings: ve’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lephnaihem. “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” Rashi comments that when the Torah begins a passage with eleh, or “these”, the previous passage is separated from the new one. However, when the Torah uses the word ve’eleh, “and these”, the two passages are closely linked, and what the Torah is telling us here, is that just as the Ten Commandments were give on Har Sinai, so too these ordinances are from Har Sinai.
Parashat Mishpatim goes on to discuss fifty-three laws. The majority of the laws concern human interaction, Man to Man, as opposed to interactions between Man and G-d. Thirty of them are negative commandments and twenty-three are positive commandments. Why do you think that the Parasha, directly following the giving of the Ten Commandments, discusses laws between Man and Man, rather than the laws between Man and G-d?
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement, teaches that this is because to be a truly pious person, it is not enough to follow the commandments of Man to God. You must also follow the injunctions that instruct you to treat your fellowmen with justice and kindness. If your friend needs help and you have the ability to help him, then you must find a way to do so!
It goes without saying that you must also avoid stealing or hurting your neighbour in any way and this is why the Commandments on the right side of the tablet are between Man and G-d, while on the left side, they are Man to Man. This teaches us is that both are of equal importance. Even if you practice all the strictest Chumrot (stringencies of the law), it will not be sufficient if you do not treat others with the proper respect and care. In practicality, for us to be truly religious Jews, we must concentrate on both types of injunctions, so that we may continue to learn and grow!
The Ramban comments that the laws of Mishpatim, which deal with manslaughter, negligence, kidnapping, bribery, borrowing, damages for accidents, and so on, are all an extension of the Tenth Commandment, "You shall not covet your friend’s house or his wife nor his manservant or his maidservant, nor his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your friend." According to the Ramban, if you are envious of your friend’s possessions, that envy could lead to every other sort of transgression against others – stealing, adultery, even murder Chas ve-Shalom!
The Torah goes on to discuss many laws about damages and injury between neighbours. It then singles out the treatment of widows and orphans: “If you oppress [the widow or orphan], for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry. My wrath will be kindled, and I will slay you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”
The first thing we notice is that the Torah uses double Lashon for “oppress”, “cries” and “hear”: aneh teaneh; tzak yitzak; shammah eshmah. This is because when the widow or orphan cry out to Hashem, their pain is double, since they don't have a husband or a father to protect them. The Rambam and the Sefer HaChinuch all rule that this mitzvah is not limited to widows and orphans.
Rather, it applies to anyone who is weak and downtrodden. Widows and orphans are vulnerable by nature. Still, we should worry about hurting any person because no one really knows who is weak or vulnerable. Every word we speak could possibly be another indictment against us, as the verse concludes, “and should the [the widow or orphan] cry to Me, I shall certainly hear him!”
Today the world’s view of religion is of a distinct and isolated aspect of life, one of rituals and spirituality. The rest of life is focused on living in “the real world” and relating to others. For Jews, however, there is no such distinction. Every moment of our lives is both real and spiritual. The idea that Hashem exists only in the synagogue should be alien to us as Jews.
Every experience, be it prayer or just paying our bills, is infused with the recognition that we’re serving Hashem. A Jew serves Hashem wherever he goes. There is no difference between laws between Man and G-d, and between Man and his fellow. Every action we take is simply another way to fulfill the will of Hashem.
Rav Yisrael Salanter was very strict about the halachot of Matza. He baked his Matzot himself, applying as many stringencies as he could. One year, however, he had to travel, and he was unable to bake his own Matzot so he asked one of his students to oversee the baking. The student asked Rav Yisrael to write down all of the stringencies, so that he could enforce them properly.
The first item on the list was to make sure that his presence would not cause any stress or pressure to the women working there. “Be very careful not to upset them,” he warned his student. “Many of these women are widows.” In Rav Yisrael’s opinion, though his stringencies about Chametz were a way to draw closer to Hashem, the Torah is more concerned about other people’s feelings.
There is a famous story during the time of the Chafetz Chayim, in which a widow and her children were put out on the street because she didn't have the money to pay her rent. Many years later the man who did this cruel thing was working in his mill and somehow he got trapped and suffocated in the silo. When the Chafetz Chayim heard what had happened, he responded that he had been waiting twenty years to see how Hashem would repay that man for the cruelty he had imposed on the widow and her children so many years earlier.
The Parasha also includes an injunction against charging interest when you lend money (22:24). This is one of only three places in the Torah where the word im means “when” as opposed to '”if”. Why does the Torah use the language of "When you lend money" as opposed to "If you lend money?" We learn from this that to assist a poor man with a loan is not optional, it is obligatory, providing that you have the extra money to lend him. The Or Hachaim explains: “When you realize that Hashem has blessed you with a good Parnasah and more wealth than you need to live, you must understand that a percentage of that money actually belongs to the poor man, and Hashem gave it to you to hold for him; and when you lend it to him, you'll even get a Mitzvah!
So that's why the money of the poor man is “with” you. In addition, this becomes a great opportunity, for when you give Tzedakah to a fellow Jew, its as if the lender is benefiting even more than the borrower, by means of a very big Mitzvah! The Keli Akar goes even further, saying that when the poor man comes to you, it should be perceived as if he's doing more for you, than you're doing for him!
There is a well-known story about the Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abravanel) who was the finance manager of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Spain in the 1400s. The people accused him of stealing, but King Ferdinand, who was very close to him and trusted him, asked him the value of his estate. The Abarbanel gave a much smaller figure than he knew his Estate to be worth, and then added, "All that we think we own, such as our home, money in the bank, and all our other possessions are just temporary and can be taken away from us at any moment, but all the charity that we give away is what is really ours and that is what we will ultimately take with us to Olam Haba!"
The Abarbanel went on to organize an effort to redeem 250 Jews who had been taken prisoner, donating most of the money himself and supporting them for two years, giving them time to learn the language and find work.
This reminds me of a close friend of mine who's a true Baal Tzedakah. I remember when his business took a little downturn and he became somewhat concerned, he yelled out..."Baruch Hashem...even if I lose my business now and all my money, I’m satisfied knowing that all the money that I gave away to tzedakah can never be taken away from me!" I asked him what he meant by that and he responded: ."Don't you know that all the money that we give away to Tzedakah is truly the only real money that we own and that's what will accompany us after 120 years to Olam Habah?"
May we all act only in a way that's befitting a Jew and may we always be conscious of the laws between Man and Man as well as the laws between Man and G-d. May we also be considerate of the poor man among us and understand that more than we are helping him, he is helping us, and that whatever we give to Tzedakah in this world is going into our own account in Olam Habah which can never be taken away from us because in Hashem’s eyes that's all that we really own! Amen!