Parashat Mishpatim: The Social Message
Money per se isn’t bad. It’s a tool and a resource we receive from the God. The real question is what the use of this money does to the person using it. Will that person choose to grow rich at the expense of the needy? Will people amass fortunes by defrauding the poor and those who are in distress?
Rabbi Shaul Vieder is an instructor in OTS’s Claudia Cohen Torah/Army School (Hadas) at Midreshet Lindenbaum, as well as a teacher at the Robert M. Beren Yeshivat Hesder Machanaim
What is considered important? And what is considered even more important? This question could be asked with regard to which political party’s platform is more ethical, and whom we should elect. Alternatively, it could also produce a dispute among the rishonim, the medieval Spanish-Jewish sages, regarding how many principles of faith there are. Are there thirteen, as Maimonides suggests, or are we to follow Rabbi Joseph Albo, who maintains that there only three principles?
A well-known example of this appears at the end of Tractate Makkot, in the Babylonian Talmud. The text states that according to Psalm 15, King David condensed the 613 commandments in the Torah into 11 principles. The prophets further condensed the mitzvot until the prophet Habakuk narrowed all the mitzvot of the Torah down to one principle of faith in Hashem: “the righteous shall live in their faith”.
The question of what is considered important and what more important came to mind with regard to Parashat Mishpatim, the parasha immediately following the giving of the Torah, which enumerates a long list of positive and negative commandments – 53 in total. Could we say that among these commandments, there are “flowers that are more beautiful than others”?
According to the Sefat Emet, who represents the Hassidic stream, if we were to ask Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk this question, we would be rather surprised by his answer.
He writes the following commentary on the end of chapter 22: “… and you shall be a holy people, you shall not eat unclean meat of the field, rather you shall throw it to the dogs. The Kozker Rebbe teaches us that ‘Hashem has no shortage of ministering angels, yet He longs to sanctify human beings, and therefore, people must preserve holiness with their actions.'”
The Kotzker Rebbe explains that if, in the previous parasha, we were told by Hashem that we should be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” we are to conclude that to achieve that level of holiness, we must rise above ourselves and attain the level of the angels. Otherwise, we won’t achieve a holy state when serving Hashem. This week’s parasha entreats us to live as human beings, and to be humane. This is the only way we can experience holiness. We won’t attain holiness by hallucinating about reaching the level of the highest ranks of angels. Our day-to-day lives, whether we are on the road, in the field, or encountering unclean meat, could lead us to achieving holiness through observing divine commandments. Thus, holiness is present among human beings, and is expressed in the way that people conduct their lives – guided by the Torah. This choice is in the channel connecting God and man.
It seems to me that if we were to ask one of these midrashic commentators to choose a unique commandment – to pick but one beautiful flower from the garden – we would hear the resounding words of the midrash on verse 24, chapter 22: “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person [who is] with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him:” This is the important commandment, among all of the commandments that concern man and fellow man in this week’s parasha. The sheer number of commentaries on this verse come to teach us an important social concept.
I’ll suffice with a partial modern interpretation that appears in Midrash Tanchuma, chapter 12, and in Midrash Rabba, chapter 15:
This may be compared to a king who makes his treasures available to a certain individual who later begins to oppress the poor, kill the widows, embarrass the needy, despoil the naked, do violence and theft, indulge in falsehood, and squander the king’s treasures. Similarly, the Holy One, Blessed be He, opens His treasure to the wealthy, with all that He possesses in it, as it is said: ‘Mine is the silver, and Mine the gold’ (Hag. 2:8) Then the rich man begins to loan money on interest. And he starts to taunt the widows and oppress them with interest, to embarrass the poor, and to humiliate the naked who seek charity from him, even though the Holy One, blessed be He, had declared: ‘Whoever mocks the poor blasphemes his Maker’ (Prov. 17). If a man’s neighbor is in debt to him for a hundred zuzim, he beats him, strips him, does violence to him, steals from him, and destroys the pledges he entrusted to him. Then the Holy One, blessed be He, says: ‘Woe to you that spoils, and you were not spoiled; and deals treacherously, and they did not deal treacherously with you! When you had ceased to spoil, you shall be spoiled’ (Isa. 33). The Holy One, blessed be He, gave him wealth from His treasure house, which was a treasure house of truth, and he made it into a treasure house of falsehood…
This midrash is a parable about a king who allowed someone to use his funds, but that person exploited his control over the money to defraud the poor, and to harm orphans and widows in need. The man also squandered the funds, causing the king to lose a lot of money. This is the story, in a nutshell. How can we apply moral of this fable to reality?
The commentator explains that in reality, the fable’s king is God, who opened his coffers to not just one person, but to many people who grew rich off of His money. Yet what did those people do with the king’s money? The commentator explains how they exploited that money to lend to people who needed loans, with interest. Those people are the poor, the orphans and the widows. However, unlike the parable, in which the king is passive and unaware of what was done with his money and unaware that he was losing his money, the commentator depicts the God’s rebuke: “Through this act of denigrating the poor, you are cursing me! They could be no greater chilul Hashem – desecration of God’s name – than that!” The rebuke continues as follows: “When you use a poor person’s property and clothing, which he pledged to you against the loan, you have become a thief in the eyes of Hashem.” The commentator ends with Hashem’s statement to anyone who lends on interest and seizes the pledged property of the debtors: “I gave you the money of truth, and you have made it the money of lies.”
Money per se isn’t bad. It’s a tool and a resource that we receive from God. The real question is what the use of this money does to the person using it. Will that person choose to grow rich at the expense of the needy? Will people amass fortunes by defrauding the poor and those who are in distress? Our Parsha states that “…you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the clear sighted and corrupt words of the righteous.” Money can blind a person from seeing the destitute, the weak and the needy. When all you see is money, it blocks the human landscape, with its richness and crises. Even a judge can deviate from the truth and issue a false ruling. Likewise, a person with money can turn the money of truth into the money of falsehood. In this way, we are unable to see the image of God and the nature of mankind. We are only able to see the coins.
As we try to create a human society drawing on God’s laws, a society which clarifies which of its principles are most important, it seems that if we use the money for those who really need it, and not in order to exploit them and grow rich at their expense, through falsehood and fraud, we will truly become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Perhaps, by viewing money in this way, we will be more careful in how we observe the other commandments concerning property and damages, and the commandments between man and fellow man that are listed in this parasha.