Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1- 24:18)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, IsraelYou must help repeatedly with him  (Exodus 23:5)

And these are the mishpatim [laws of moral justice] which you [Moses] shall set before Israel.’ These opening words of our portion join together our civil law with the Ten Commandments of last week’s portion of Yitro, creating one unit of Divine demands for moral justice emanating from Sinai (Rashi ad loc). Additionally, it is the concept of “mishpatim” that directly links Moses to our first patriarch, Abraham.

You will remember that God “chose [and loved] Abraham because he commands… his household after Him to keep the way of the Lord, doing righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19).

These twin ideals of our nation come up again and again; the prophet Isaiah (1:27) insists that “Israel will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her [after the exiles] through righteousness,” and the prophet Jeremiah exhorts us to understand that neither wisdom nor power nor wealth ought be sought after and praised, but praise is only deserved by people who do the following: “Contemplate and know Me, for I am the Lord who does loving-kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these is My desire” (Jeremiah 9:23). And it is important to note that this teaching of Jeremiah is in the Prophetic portion chanted on Tisha Be’av, the memorial day for the destruction of our Temples and our loss of sovereignty over our land.

It is easy to understand the meaning and significance of moral justice; everyone realizes that without law and order it would be impossible for a just society and a free world to endure. But precisely what is the meaning of righteousness (tzedaka)? The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) translates the word as kharitas, as in the Hebrew hen – graciousness, undeserved gifts; this is obviously the origin of our English word and concept, charity. But is that really a proper understanding of the Hebrew tzedaka, an undeserved handout? Is that what the Bible expects the Jews to teach the world to do?

As is necessary when attempting to understand the meaning of an ambiguous “key word,” let us examine its usage in another central biblical passage.

We are commanded to demonstrate human sensitivity in all our interpersonal dealings. Therefore, we find in the Book of Deuteronomy (24:10-13): “When you make your fellow a loan of any amount, you may not enter his home to take a security pledge for it. You must stand outside and the man to whom you gave the loan shall bring to you the security pledge outside. And if the [borrower] is poor, you may not sleep with his security pledge [which would usually be a cloak]. He [the lender] must return the security pledge to the [borrower] as soon as the sun sets, so that the borrower will sleep in his garment and bless you. For you [the lender] it will be an act of tzedaka before the Lord your God.”

The Hebrew word tzedek is usually translated as justice, precise and exact treatment of each side. Tzedaka is apparently a different noun, although certainly related to tzedek. The Talmud logically rules that the lender acquires ownership over the security pledge until the loan is repaid; hence, there is no legal obligation on the part of the lender to return the pledge to enable the borrower to cover himself with it on a cold night.

Tzedaka is therefore the amalgamation of loving-kindness with justice; it is compassionate righteousness.

The Bible does not believe in dealing with poverty by giving undeserved handouts. Yes, those who have more than they require are responsible to help the poor; but the poor are likewise responsible to help themselves. Hence, although there is a tithe for the poor twice in the seven-year sabbatical cycle, that is only a comparatively small amount; every landowner must put away a portion of land for the poor to plow and seed and nurture and reap, so that the poor in Israel can rise each morning to go to work and earn their daily bread. Witness the magnificent picture presented in the Scroll of Ruth, and how the landless and poverty-stricken returnee immigrant mother-in-law and Moabite convert daughter-in-law respectably worked in gainful employment every day in the fields of Boaz.

This week’s portion (23:5) teaches: “If you see the donkey of your enemy crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You must help again and again with him.” Yes, stipulates the Talmud, you must help even your enemy, but only if he works together with you; you are responsible for him – he, too, is your brother – but no more than he is responsible for himself. Only if he is physically unable to help himself must you lift up the animal without his input (Mishna, Bava Metzia 32a).

The Mishna teaches that “One who says that ‘mine is mine and yours is yours’ travels the middle of the road, perhaps even the golden mean; ‘mine is yours and yours is mine’ is an ignoramus; ‘mine is yours and yours is yours’ goes beyond the requirement of the law; ‘yours is mine and mine is mine’ is wicked.”

I would argue that a society in which the poor do not assume responsibility but only demand entitlement is destined to fail.

The only answer is compassionate righteousness, whereby the wealthy are entitled to the fruits of their grains and labor while at the same time encouraged – sometimes even mandated – to share their bounty; a society where everyone who wishes to help improve their lot is given the wherewithal to do so.

Shabbat Shalom! 


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