Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi's Corner


Mishpatim – Rabbi Lerner – February 16, 2020

God is in the Details - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Sacks: In our previous parsha of Yisro the Torah describes the Revelation, the greatest event in all of history; it was convincing to all the Jews that God created and is in control of everything. We then have a bewildering transition in the parsha of Mishpatim. From the sweep and drama of the Exodus, Splitting of the Sea, the Great Covenant forged at Sinai between God and His people, we now find ourselves covering a variety of topics from laws of justice, damages, festivals, beginning with Ve’Eilah Hamishpatim. Rashi: Whenever it says the word Eialeh without a Vav, it cuts it off from what came before. However, when there is a Vav it is coming to add to what was given previously – just as the original Aseres Hadibros were given at Sinai, so too, were all of the other Mitzvohs. Even though the people only heard the first two directly from God and the rest, because of their fear of God, from Moshe, the Mitzvohs are all equivalent, part of a single whole; we cannot change part of it or pick and choose from what we would like to obey. Rashi: why does it place Mishpatim immediately after the laws of the Mizbeach? Because the Great Sanhedrin Hagadol was situated in the Bais Hamikdash; that gave them their power – the proximity to the Shechinah gave them inspiration to judge well. (During the first Bais Hamikdash, when Sinas Chinam became rampant, they moved out of the Bais Hamikdash, lost their power to judge Dinai Nefashos so that they could not convict all of the many sinners). Why do all of these laws Bein Adam Lechaveiroh come now in such detail? While we might have thought that the mitzvohs of Bain Adam LaMakom would take precedence – laws of Shabbos, how to worship God, etc – instead we are given detailed interpersonal laws.

Rabbi Sacks: “Three remarkable propositions are being set out here, which have shaped the contours of Judaism ever since. The first is that just as the general principles of Judaism (aseret hadibrot means not "ten commandments" but "ten utterances" or overarching principles) are Divine, so are the details. In the 1960s the Danish architect Arne Jacobson designed a new college campus in Oxford. Not content with designing the building, he went on to design the cutlery and crockery to be used in the dining hall, and supervised the planting of every shrub in the college garden. When asked why, he replied in the words of another architect, Mies van der Rohe: "God is in the details".” That is why all of these Mitzvohs appear now – the details are as important as the overall guiding principles. There is a sentiment in some segments of Judaism to only look at the lofty ideas and not the details – such as Tzedek Tirdof and VeAhavta Reachah. But, it is the small details of all of the mitzvohs that are a priority. One cannot reduce the religion to just a few guiding principles in order to create a decent society; the details matter. Many famous secular philosophers attempted to reduce decent moral society to a few principles. But the devil is in the details. Rabbi Sacks: There are those who believe that what is holy in Judaism is its broad vision, never so compellingly expressed as in the Decalogue at Sinai. The truth however is that God is in the details: "Just as the former were given at Sinai, so these were given at Sinai." The greatness of Judaism is not simply in its noble vision of a free, just and compassionate society, but in the way it brings this vision down to earth in detailed legislation.

As an example: 22: 24-6: When – Im – you will lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest (Interest = Nechech is like to bite) upon him. If you take your fellow’s garment as security, until sunset shall you return it to him. For it alone is his clothing, it is his garment for his skin – in what should he lie down? So it will be that if he cries out to Me, I shall listen, for I am compassionate. Rashi: Rebbi Yishmael: usually the word “Im” means if – that it is conditional; this would give us the impression that it is optional to loan money; but there are three exceptions to this rule in the Torah – in those instances the word Im means something mandatory – we are obligated to give a loan when asked if we have the wherewithal to lend – it is a Mitzvah DeOraysah. If a pauper needs money and we don’t respond, then we are in trouble. And we must do it in a way that is not difficult for the borrower; it must be done with humanity. This is a primary focus of the Torah. We try to imitate the Midos of God in our everyday activities.

Before getting to Mitzvohs Bain Adam LaMakom, the Torah is more interested in the details of Bain Adam LeChaveiroh. We have to create a society that is not just pious, with fear and love of God; He wanted us to be concerned with interpersonal details and Mitzvohs – that is how a perfect society is built on earth; that has to precede the details of serving God; God wants us to create a society based on His Midos. Zohar: God created the world because His essence is Rachamim – He needed people upon whom he could bestow His goodness, kindness, and mercy – that is His mission and that should be ours. While a Meracheim does an occasional act of mercy; a Rachaman, like Hashem, is one whose whole being is about mercy and kindness. If we take this pauper’s garment and he has nothing to keep him warm at night, God will know that. Hashem has a tremendous concern that we don’t just look at the big picture; God is interested in the minutia; 613 mitzvohs are just the beginning; there is an enormous corpus of law. God showed the grandeur of His being at Sinai; this parsha is the follow up, to show the importance of what God wants – for us to be compassionate like Him; that is why Mishpatim is filled with mitzvohs Bain Adam LeChaveiroh. Another example of this: 23:6: Do not pervert the judgment of your destitute person in his grievance. Hashem does not want us to throw the case against the pauper who is up against a powerful, important person. 23:7-9: Distance yourself from a false word; do not execute the innocent or the righteous, for I shall not exonerate the wicked. Do not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind those who see and corrupt words that are just. Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. We must treat the downtrodden of society with respect.

Another important pasuk Devarim 6:18: And you should do what is fair and good in the eyes of Hashem, so that it will be good for you, and you shall come and possess the good land that Hashem swore to your forefathers. Ramban: what does that mean? Rabbi Sacks: life is too complex and unpredictable to have details for everything; the Torah provides us with general rules and then, on the other hand, specific examples. We see this with Avraham who was in pain after a Bris Milah, but insisted on running to provide comfort to three strangers. One cannot specify all of the rules of menshlichkeit; so there are broad guidelines. If there is a stranger who is hungry and thirsty passing through, one should go over to this person and invite him to your home. There are many details, but also overriding principles like this pasuk, in which we should imitate God – we do what is straight and righteous in the eyes of God; a mitzvah between man and man is also one between man and God. God is worried about our Bain Adam LeChaveiroh more than our relationship with Him. If we do what is proper with our fellow man, then it will be fair and good in God’s eyes. He judges Bain Adam LeChaveiroh as much and maybe even more than Bain Adam LaMakom. God wants us to take care of our family of Klal Yisrael. God’s main quality is that of Chesed – that is what He desires of us.

Rabbi Sacks: A second fundamental principle taught in this parsha: civil law is not secular law. If all laws have a divine origin, then Bain Adam LaChaveiroh commandments are really religious laws as well; we do not believe in the principle of separation of the two principles – Bain Adam LaChaveiroh is as important as Shabbos and other laws of Bain Adam LaMakom. This is why the Sanhedrin Hagadol was installed in the Bais Hamikdash. A major part of the supreme court litigation was Bain Adam LeChaveiroh; Hashem is telling us that the law of Judaism is all driven by the religious vision of the Torah. One set of rules is not higher than the other – it is all from the Torah. When Moshe was receiving the Torah in heaven, the angels protested that it shouldn’t be given to flawed humans; Moshe responded it had to be given to people to perfect ourselves; all of the mitzvohs in the Torah are meant for humans who have weaknesses and a Yetzer Harah, not for perfect angels. We must obey parents, not steal from each other, etc… God may be up in heaven, and difficult to reach; but we connect with Him by being obedient to Him, acting as His servants by accepting His laws and imitating His midos.

Hashem therefore is equally to be found in the market place, the corridors of power, and courts of law, as in the Bais Hamikdash or Bais Hamidrash. He is not just in the holy places. How we deal with people must understand this guideline.

Rabbi Sacks: The third principle: the law does not belong to lawyers; it is the heritage of every Jew. Therefore the Torah says in 21:1 “And these are the laws you should place before them” – it is for all Jews, like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating. Why did Rav Yosef Cairo write a book called the Shulchan Aroch – the Set Table? To understand that every law has its place; we all have to perform these laws, to learn and teach them to our children; they should be razor sharp in our mouths. “From earliest times, Judaism expected everyone to know and understand the law. Legal knowledge is not the closely guarded property of an elite. Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. Yitro contains the vision, but God is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.”

Tue, February 18 2020 23 Shevat 5780