Laws that Elevate
This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, follows the description of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the giving of the Torah, and the listing of the famous, Ten Statements (or, colloquially, Commandments). In our Torah reading there is an extensive focus on civil law, interpersonal relationships, finances, torts and damages. The Ten Commandments were inscribed on two tablets. On the first tablet were five statements about the relationship between a person and his or her Creator (God and parents). The second five focus on the relationship between a person and his or her peers. The design of the tablets teaches us, that in order to be complete, people must cultivate proper relationships with their peers just as much as they form a connection with God. A person who is devout and sensitive in matters relating to God, but is remiss in his treatment of other people, is neglecting half of the human purpose in the world. A famous story in the Talmud illustrates this idea:
A Gentile came to… Hillel and said, “Convert me, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Hillel said, “That which is hateful unto you, do not do unto your friend – that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary, go and learn.”
Rashi explains, that Hillel is referring to two “friends:” The Creator, Who is called “your Friend and the Friend of your father,” and is referred to in our liturgy as “Beloved of the soul;” and to our literal “friends,” our fellow human beings. Acting with an awareness of and sensitivity toward the desires of both of these “friends” is the essence of Judaism. All of the laws and commandments are “commentaries” on exactly how to avoid doing that which “is hateful unto” your friend. In this chapter, we will summarize some of the primary obligations of the Torah that govern our relationships with people. The basis for most of these obligations can be found in the following verses in Leviticus:
You shall not steal, you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie to one another. You shall not swear falsely by My Name, thereby desecrating the Name of your God – I am God. You shall not cheat your fellow and you shall not rob; you shall not withhold a worker’s wage with you until morning. You shall not curse the deaf, and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God – I am God. You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness shall you judge your fellow. You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people, you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed – I am God. You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him. You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself – I am God.
In the ancient world, many codes of law preceded or existed concurrently with the Torah’s code. These systems provided societies with the legal framework necessary to prevent anarchy and to ensure that the life of man not be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In contrast to the Torah, however, none speak in terms of love for others, absolute morality or moral demands emanating from God. They specify the consequences of certain actions, describe payments and judgments, but never enter the sphere of morality. Their main concern is pragmatism and economic security, while the Torah’s primary concern is goodness, righteousness and the service of God. Other codes deal only with legal matters, the Torah combines “legal, moral, and religious prescriptions” into a single entity. In other codes, those given the most protection under the law are the nobility, the landowners and the priests; in the Torah, most protection is provided for the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the poor.
These laws of the Torah are, therefore, not merely a social contract or bill of rights; they are Divine commandments designed to elevate the individual and society, and inculcate us with the qualities of God’s justice and compassion. It is not only enlightened self-interest that should motivate us in our dealing with other people, but also a recognition that God, the Creator, demands that we treat His children with justice, compassion and love. The Torah is teaching us that these commandments come with the authority of God behind them. They were not formulated merely by human choice or communal will; that it why so many of these laws end with the phrase “I am God.”