In This Issue:
Rabbi Josh Kahn
Rabbi Chaim Jachter
For the first four Parshiot in the beginning of Sefer Shemot, we read about the terrible slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt. Following the story of our redemption, we next read about the great miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim and Kabbalat HaTorah. Fittingly, because Parashat Mishpatim opens on the heels of the Aseret HaDibrot, we read about the laws of slavery. The juxtaposition of our slavery in Egypt to the laws of sensitivity toward slaves is appropriate since our sensitivity to the plight of a slave should be heightened through our own experience. The sensitivity described in this week’s Parashah mandates that the slave owner provides the slave with all of the needs and even the luxuries that the slave owner provides for himself. However, this feeling of sensitivity should also remind us to despise becoming a slave; a slave is unable to serve God to the utmost, while freedom provides us with the opportunity to serve Hashem.
With this backdrop it is easy for us to understand the grave error of a Jew who decides that he wants to remain a slave when he completes his slavery period. The Jewish slave, who was entitled to go free after six years, could decide to remain a slave until the Yovel year arrives, every fifty years. Consequently, The Torah commands the owner to pierce the person’s ear to demonstrate his desire to remain enslaved. The Gemara (Kiddushin 22b) questions the necessity of piercing the slave's ear. The Gemara answers that “The ear that heard at Har Sinai ‘You are slaves to Me’ and chose not to go free deserves to be punished.” With the memory of our enslavement in Egypt fresh in our minds, it is quite understandable that the Torah is critical of the person who could go free, yet remains a slave.
The focus on the ear is puzzling! Although literally the slave selectively “heard” through his ears, it is more likely that it was his heart or mind that made the decision to remain a slave; the ear certainly did not decide! Therefore, why is such an emphasis placed on the ear?
The Sfat Emet, one of the Gerrer Rebbes, explains the significance of piercing the ear. At Har Sinai God proclaimed a powerful message to Bnei Yisrael, focusing us on our mission in life as Avdei Hashem. Someone who was present at Har Sinai, yet chooses slavery, may have heard the words without hearing the message. Because the message was not internalized, it never passed through the listener's ears! Therefore the Torah commands us to poke a whole in his ear, encouraging the slave to open his ears to hear what is being said.
A similar idea is developed by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz who commented on the miracle of Keriyat Yam Suf. Chazal describe that even a simple maidservant in Bnei Yisrael prophesied greater than that of a famous later prophet. Yet, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz wonders, how could the very same people who saw this great revelation commit the grave sin of the Golden Calf a short amount of time later? Rav Chaim Shmulevitz answers by noting that Chazal still describe the maidservant as a maidservant, even after profoundly seeing God’s presence; the maidservant still remained a lowly maidservant. Therefore, failing to internalize the experience of Keriyat Yam Suf enabled Bnei Yisrael to sin with the Cheit HaEgel. Similarly, the slave witnesses HaShem at Har Sinai but he fails to internalize HaShem's message.
A powerful story is told about a poor man who begged door to door for money. The beggar knocked on the home a wealthy man from the Rothschild family. Mr. Rothschild, in a generous mood, asked the beggar his plan of action if the beggar would be given a million dollars. The poor man responded, “I would no longer walk door to door begging for money. I would hire a horse and buggy to take me door to door begging.” The poor man could have received the money, but he could not internalize that receiving the money could have transformed him into a wealthy man.
As a community we have committed to a Tefillah initiative. A very basic question raised in regards to Tefillah is why is it necessary to daven if Hashem already knows one's needs? Why should one's davening affect Hashem's decision? Rav Akiva Tatz suggests an answer that follows the same idea of the Sfat Emet and Rav Chaim Shmuleviz. One's request may be the same, regardless of verbalization to Hashem. The one who prays is changed, not Hashem’s decision. Therefore, it is possible that without having davened, it would be inappropriate for one to receive a certain response from God. But now, after davening, it is appropriate for one, new and improved, to receive a response. If we take this idea seriously, we should strive to make each davening a transformative process, not only by saying the words, but also by understanding the words that we have uttered through having a conversation with Hashem.
In the merit of this commitment to Tefillah, may all of our prayers be answered!
To understand what really differentiates Jews from the rest of the world, we need only look to our guidebook to life, the Torah. While the Torah is unique, it shares similarities with the Semitic laws and codes that existed when the Torah was given. Upon a deeper analysis of these Semitic laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi, the Hittite Laws, Middle Assyrian Laws, and so on, a critical difference can be identified which lends itself to a more pronounced explanation of the difference between Jews and Nochrim.
There is a simple way to explain the similarities between Jews and Nochrim: all of humankind shares a basic sense of morality which can be found in every culture and religion. Additionally, the teachings of righteous non-Jews, such as Shem, Ever, and Methushelach, were beneficially transmitted throughout the Semitic nations. In this way, the morality and the reasons behind the Semitic laws may all be the same. It is possible that the pre-existence of these similarities made it easier for the Jews to accept the Torah; it wasn’t a compilation of far fetched absurdities, but a legal code that closely paralleled the morality of the generation of the Jews’ non-Jewish contemporaries. Nevertheless, the differences in the punishments for immorality between the Torah and other Semitic codes may shed light on the stark contrast between the Torah and the other Semitic codes.
One similar moral law amongst the Semitic codes deals with the rape of a virgin. According to both the Torah and many other Semitic codes, if she is raped in a field, she is exempt from any inquiry as to her promiscuity in lying with a man, whereas if the rape occurs in a city, she is suspect for not crying for help. The Torah and the other Semitic codes, in fact, are quite similar in Bein Adam LeChaveiro, or interpersonal, law. They diverge, however, with Judaism’s acknowledgement of God’s direct interaction in the world. While the Semitic laws recognize Bein Adam LeChaveiro laws, they fail to realize that an element of Bein Adam LeMakom (divinity) exists within interpersonal interactions; they do not comprehend that social contracts are, in fact, dictated by divine wills. For example, according to the Assyrian laws, one is allowed to collect a ransom instead of executing a rapist or murderer. Such a practice is explicitly forbidden in Judaism, as it is written in the Torah “ViLo Tikchu Kofer Li Nefesh Rotzeach Asher Hu Rasha LaMut: Ki Mot YuMat” “And do not take ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death; but he shall surely be put to death” (Bamidbar 35:31). The Torah considers the murder an offence to God, not just a human matter. Through this example, it becomes apparent that our social justice is infused with godliness; not only do we punish for offences against each other, but we must also be mindful of the affect our actions will have towards God’s will. It is for this reason that Yosef had to tell Eishet Potifar that sleeping with her would be a sin towards God, i.e. not just to her husband.
The Torah also puts a much greater emphasis on a human life than on any other set of laws. For example, the Torah states that as punishment for having one’s ox gore a person three times and kill him, the owner is put to death (and see Rashi). The laws of the other nations pose a similar case of an ox goring three times, yet in this case, the owner is not held accountable to the point of death. The law states: “If an ox, while passing on the street, gored a man and killed him, the case is not a matter fit for a legal claim. If an ox be a goring ox, and it was shown that he is a gorer, and he did not cut his horns, or fasten the ox up, and the ox gore a free-born man and kill him, the owner shall pay one-half a mina in money” (Code of Hammurabi, 250-251). Astonishingly, the owner is responsible only monetarily and not with his life.
While the differences listed here are by no means an exhaustive list, they begin to demonstrate that the Torah is not only fair but also contains a firm moral intensity (and divine origin) that defines our roles as Jews as moral and sensitive people. While maintaining such a high standard of morality is not often so easy, it enables us to lead a truly proper way of life. May we all find the strength to maintain a sense of high morality in our lives.
This week’s Parashah serves as an introduction to all of Jewish law. Topics ranging from understanding the scope of the sin of stealing to the permissibility of killing in self defense are all discussed. In fact, the topics that are discussed in this week’s Parashah have a myriad of practical modern day applications. Rav Berel Wein notes that we as Jews, living in modern times, are constantly faced with complex questions pertaining to the Halacha in this week’s Parashah. To live successful lives as Bnei and Bnot Torah, we need to fully understand each and every Halacha presented in this week's Parashah. We can not, however, simply learn about these Halachot in theory, but we must transfer them into contemporary cases to relate to our daily lives.
When Bnei Yisrael were asked to accept the Torah at Har Sinai, they answered “Naaseh VNishma” “We will do and we will listen” (24:7). Bnei Yisrael realized that simply listening and learning about the commandments would be insufficient. Rather, they must actually perform actions in order to succeed as Torah Jews.
This Tuesday, February 24, 2009, marks the one year anniversary of the massacre of the students from Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav. In commemoration of the Yartzheit, a joint effort has been made by Yeshivot from across the globe to complete all of Shas Gemara. Students in each of the participating Yeshivot understand the importance of using their Torah learning, not just to sit and learn, but to be active in affirming the perseverance of Torah despite massacres. May the Neshamot of the eight Kedoshim murdered in the attacks have an Aliyah in honor of the Siyum that will occur next week.
In Parashat Mishpatim, we learn about the laws of Geirut, or conversion. We are taught that we must be especially kind to a Geir, who joined Am Yisrael with his own free will and established his life in a Jewish way. We are also forbidden to remind a Geir of any sins he may have done before his conversion, so as not to embarrass him. This is especially important for people who have been observant Jews for their entire lives. For example, lifelong religious Jews may not find it very difficult to resist the temptation of a cheeseburger, yet, for someone who may have enjoyed that food previously, suddenly refraining from eating it is extremely difficult.
The Chachamim also apply the Halachot of Geirut to dealing with other, lifelong Jews. Geirim may be unfamiliar with some points of Judaism that we may take for granted. Similarly, newcomers in one’s own community need the same introduction to the finer points of life in his community.
Sometimes, we assume that everyone is on our spiritual level. We may not think before we unintentionally cause other people discomfort with our comments about Judaism. We should learn from these Halachot not just to treat Geirim with respect, kindness and brotherly love, but to treat everyone we meet in this manner.