Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Mishpotim


It has been noted that the yahrtzeit of Rav Yisroel Salanter (25 Shevat), the founder of the Mussar movement, traditionally falls out close to the reading of Parshas Mishpatim, and this year his yahrtzeit will be on Sunday. I once heard a beautiful insight into this non-coincidental connection based on Rashi’s first comment in the parsha.

Rashi explains that the purpose of the seemingly superfluous letter “vav” (and) at the beginning of the parsha is to emphasize a connection between this parsha and the previous one (Yisro). Just as the previous parsha related the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and it was self-evident that the mitzvos contained therein were presented by Hashem at Sinai, so too the commandments contained in Parshas Mishpatim were also given at Sinai.

Parshas Yisro contains the Aseres HaDibros (10 Commandments), the fundamentals of the Jewish religion which people are naturally scrupulous to perform. By and large, Parshas Mishpatim contains mitzvos pertaining to the conduct between us and our fellow man, laws which are often viewed as trivial and mundane, which causes us to be lax in their observance. For this reason, the Torah emphasizes their Divine origin, equal to that of the “more serious” injunctions of the Aseres HaDibros.

The life-long mission at which the great Rav Yisroel Salanter toiled endlessly was to convince Jews to recognize that the mitzvos governing our interpersonal interactions are just as important as those pertaining to our relationship with Hashem, and we must be equally meticulous in their performance. Rashi tells us that Rav Yisroel’s thesis is the message of the very first letter of our parsha. It is therefore fitting that his yahrtzeit falls this week, as learning our parsha is a most proper tribute to his legacy.

This message is illustrated by the following story involving a young newlywed who was careful to perform each mitzvah according to the most stringent opinion. Shortly before the holiday of Sukkos, his wife requested that they spend the holiday with her elderly mother. Her husband agreed and on the day before Sukkos, they traveled to her mother’s home, arriving just a few hours before the holiday.

As they began to unpack and get settled, he noticed that the Sukkah that his mother-in-law had constructed in her yard didn’t conform to a Rabbinical stringency required by the great Chazon Ish. Because time was short, he realized that he didn’t have sufficient time to adjust the Sukkah in order to meet this opinion, nor did he have time to return to his hometown.

Without any choice, the husband was “forced” to eat his meals and sleep in the Sukkah of one of her neighbors. Meanwhile, his wife and mother-in-law were left to “enjoy” their holiday through bitter tears. A prominent Rav who heard about the incident remarked, “He kept the Rabbinical stringency of the Chazon Ish by violating the Torah’s prohibition (22:21) against causing pain to a widow or orphan!”

As piety is often associated with the mitzvos between man and Hashem, it is unfortunately not uncommon for somebody wishing to prove his religious devotion to emphasize this type of mitzvah at the expense of the commandments governing our interpersonal relationships. In reality, Rashi and Rav Yisroel Salanter teach us that true piety requires us to recognize that both categories emanate equally from Hashem and must be balanced accordingly.

Im ra’ah b’einei adoneha asher lo y’adah … v’im livno yiadenah k’mishpat habanos ya’aseh lah (21:8-9)

The Torah gives the master of a female Jewish slave a moral obligation to arrange for her marriage, either to himself or to his son. Who is this maidservant? She is the daughter of a man so stricken by poverty that he was forced to sell his own young daughter into slavery, hardly a girl that people will be jumping to marry.

In his work Darkei HaShleimus, Rav Shlomo Margolis suggests that this mitzvah teaches us that when it comes to seeking a prospective match, money shouldn’t be the determining factor. Nobody could possibly be as destitute as this maidservant, yet the Torah commands her owner not to see a financially downtrodden girl but a potential wife or daughter-in-law. Money – or the lack thereof – doesn’t reflect in the slightest on the essence of a person and his or her suitability to be a good husband or wife.

To illustrate this point, Rav Margolis recounts that there was once a student in the Radin yeshiva who returned after a trip to meet a prospective match. The saintly Chofetz Chaim asked him how the encounter went. The young man proceeded to describe at length the tremendous poverty in which the family lived. The sagacious Chofetz Chaim turned to the boy and asked with a smile, “Nu, and what other ma’alos (positive traits) did she have?”

Kol almanah v’yasom lo s’anun eem ano s’aneh oso ki im tzadok yitzak eilai shamoa eshma tza’akaso (22:21-22)

The Torah warns against causing pain to widows and orphans, who are often among the most helpless and tragic members of society. However, it is curious to note that in doing so, the Torah, which never wastes a word, curiously doubles each of the verbs – three times in one verse. What lesson is Hashem teaching us?

An insight into these seemingly superfluous words may be gleaned from the following story. A young father and husband suddenly passed away one spring day. As his widow struggled to put the family back together and reassure the orphans, she was determined to make the upcoming Yom Tov of Pesach as beautiful as ever, even as she wondered who would sit at the head of the table and conduct the Seder.

As part of the traditional preparations, she took her children to get new shoes in honor of the holiday. The owner of the shoe store, familiar with the tragic plight of the family, attempted to cheer up the children by offering each a shiny balloon. While most of them seemed appreciative and momentarily forgot their troubles, one of the girls walked to the door and released her balloon skyward.

The mother, embarrassed at her daughter’s apparent lack of appreciation for the gift, proceeded to lecture her about the need for respect and gratitude. The innocent girl looked up at her mother, and through a tear-stained face explained her actions: “Daddy didn’t get one.”

Although any humane person would naturally feel compassion for the plight of a poor widow or orphan, the Kotzker Rebbe explains that the Torah is opening our eyes to a finer sensitivity that we are expected to internalize and strive to reach. Our verse uses three double expressions to alert us that the pain of widows and orphans is twofold.

The Kotzker explains that in addition to the natural hurt of the slight or insult which would be felt by any person, the cruel treatment reawakens deep wounds by causing them to think that if only their beloved father or husband was still alive, he could come to their defense. The intense cries which result will immediately arouse Hashem’s compassion, and it is for this reason that the Torah stresses the need to treat them with mercy.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     If a person lights a fire and it causes damage, he is liable to pay for the loss that it caused (22:5). If a fire burns down a house on which the owner has an insurance policy, is the person who lit the fire still responsible to pay for the damages? (Shu”t Maharsham 4:7, Ohr Sameach Hilchos Sechirus 7:1, Kovetz Shiurim Kesuvos 217, Ayeles HaShachar Vayikra 24:21)

2)     One Shabbos afternoon, more boys than usual arrived at the neighborhood group for saying Tehillim, and when the time came to distribute sweets to all who had attended, there weren’t enough to go around. Those in charge asked for volunteers to forego their candy for that week in exchange for a guarantee that they would receive two in its place the following week in addition to their regular one. Some of the boys came to the Rav to question whether such an arrangement violates the prohibition (22:24) against taking interest. Does it? (Tuv’cha Yabi’u)

3)     The Gemora in Bava Metzia (32b) quotes a dispute whether the prohibition against causing pain to animals is Biblical or Rabbinical in nature. According to the opinion that doing so is a Biblical transgression, what is the Torah source for this prohibition? (Rashi Shabbos 128b, Moreh Nevuchim 3:17, Shita Mekubetzes Bava Metzia 32b, Sefer HaChinuch 451, Ramban Bereishis 1:29, Shu”t Sh’eilas Yaavetz 110, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

© 2010 by Oizer Alport.