Parsha Thought – Mishpatim

This week we begin Parsha Mishpatim. Mishpatim is full of what most people would refer to as “Civil Law.” A quick glance shows that any number of topics are covered in this section, but they all seem to emphasize how to treat another individual.

Most people is Western society would like to differentiate between “church and state” but the Hebrew mindset cannot fathom such a split. We understand that laws against theft and murder are important, but what if we borrow something and it becomes damaged or stolen? An even greater question is, what do we do when we see that our arch nemesis can’t get his car started and he’s running late for work? Would you be surprised that our obligation is to help him?

“If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him repeatedly. If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall repeatedly help him.”

Exodus 23:4-5 (The Chumash)

In most situations it would be unusual for a difficult neighbor to have a donkey loose in the neighborhood, but the message is clear; your personal feelings for the individual do not supersede your requirement to help him. Rashi comments that the Torah asks incredulously how someone could consider letting his disdain take precedence over the need to help the owner and his suffering animal. That really is a question that should make us think; who are we to decide who deserves kindness and who does not? Furthermore, why should the owner’s animal suffer due to our callousness?

Examples such as this demonstrate that the Torah makes no distinction between righteousness within a house of worship and righteousness outside its walls. Being a holy and set-apart was never meant to stop when we exit the doors Shabbat evening. Righteous living should permeate every area of our lives. If we think about it, how we treat others reflects our attitude toward the One who gave these commands. From this we could gather that Elohim wanted us to understand and practice the proper treatment of one another before we could be entrusted with the rest of the Torah. Why give us the directions for offerings on the altar, when we didn’t even know how to treat our fellows?

“Six days shall you accomplish your activities, and on the seventh day you shall desist, so that your ox and donkey may be content and your maidservant’s son and the sojourner may be refreshed.”

Exodus 23:12 (The Chumash)

In my opinion, this is an interesting verse. We are obligated, by Torah, to cease from working on the Shabbat so that our animals and employees can benefit from the rest too. Not only are we to cease our activities for a day, but we should not require others to continue theirs. The blessing that comes from our obedience didn’t stop with us; it spread to those around us. By “carefully regarding everything He has said to us” (ibid. 13), we naturally treat our fellow and the animals in our care with kindness.

If we decided to let our religious observances be confined to a space within four walls, we would be entirely ineffective in accomplishing HaShem’s will. What use is it to pray and observe religious ceremonies if they cannot transform our character into something that sees our neighbor as deserving of love and respect? If we turn Torah into a religious option instead of an obligation for righteous living, we demonstrate that the Creator of the Universe is selective, also, in whom He cares about. The truth is, He expects an accurate representation; when you demonstrate chessed, kindness, to your fellow, you reflect His face in this world.

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