Legalities, Morals and Divine Ethics – Parshas Mishpatim 5774

Parshat Mishpatim contains within it much of the Jewish legal code in areas of torts and damages, contract law, business law and the like.  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.”

From the Bible, through the writings of the Prophets and down to the Sages, Judaism has always placed tremendous emphasis on justice, honesty and righteousness.  The eighth of the Ten Commandments, “Do not steal” encompasses all financial crimes, damages and issues of business ethics,  everything from the ultimate theft – kidnapping — down to overcharging a customer.  Elsewhere, the Torah also enumerates many specific financial crimes, such as:

  • You shall not cheat one another…
  • You shall not oppress your friend, nor rob him…
  • You shall not move a boundary…
  • You shall not commit a perversion in justice, in measures of length, weight, or volume. You shall have correct scales, correct weights, correct dry measures and correct liquid measures…

The prophets frequently chastised the Jewish people for not being honest, and reminded them that justice is what God most desires from us.

It has been told to you, mankind, what is good and what God requires of you; only to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

…[He who] does not oppress any man; does not keep collateral; does not rob any loot; gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing; withholds his hand from harming the poor; does not take usury or interest; obeys my ordinances… he shall surely live!

Every man shall turn back from the robbery that is in his hands. He who knows shall repent and God and God will relent…

The Sages also stressed the critical importance of honesty in business and financial matters:

When a person is brought to his final judgment [in the World to Come] he is asked the following questions: “Did you deal with people in good faith?…”

Come and see how great is the impact of theft! The generation of the flood committed all types of sins, but their final decree [of destruction] was signed because of stealing…

One reason for this emphasis on ethical conduct is that that people judge the effectiveness and validity of Judaism by the behavior of its followers.  Therefore, every Jew is — like it or not — a representative of Judaism:

One who studies Torah… but is not honest in his dealings with people, and does not speak pleasantly to others, what do people say about him? Woe to so-and-so who has learned Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teachers who taught him Torah…

Even Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can only atone for sins between a person and God. For offences against other people, Yom Kippur is completely ineffective until the victim has been compensated, and has forgiven the one who injured him.

You May Also Like

Symbolism and Rationale of Sukkot 5781

Teshuva and Tactical Mitzvot

Hope and Optimism 5781

A Baal Teshuvah of Whom You Have Never Heard