Commentary for Mishpatim

9 Feb

If last week’s parshah was about the big moment of the revelation at Sinai and the “big” laws that establish the important tenet of Judaism- both in terms of religious laws such as keeping Shabbat and not worshipping false gods, as well as moral laws that teach us to respect our fellow humans and their property, such as prohibitions against murder and theft- then this week’s parshah is about the opposite of that. While the major ideas are still present- particularly the respect for others and their property, it is a parshah mostly filled with legal minutiae. There is much we can learn from the scenarios the parshah describes, most people aren’t going to care how many times the value of the stolen livestock a thief must repay.

While most of the legal rulings in the parshah teach us to respect others in the negative- “if you do this particular mean thing to someone else, your punishment will be X”- there is one phrase so simple and plain that most people would assume there is nothing we can learn from it that actually teaches us a very important lesson to help us live a much happier life, especially in our dealings with other people.

Exodus 22:8 states that “the case of both parties shall come before the judges; he who judges find guilty shall pay (double to his fellow).” While this phrase might not seem profound- in fact, it seems pretty obvious- every word and phrase in the Torah is chosen for a reason. The Torah is a religious text, and thus it often deals in absolute truths and wants us to believe in the possibility of a utopia of justice where no guilty people will get away with their crimes and no innocents will be wrongfully convicted. As such, the Torah could easily have said “the case of both parties shall come before the judges; the guilty shall pay (double to his fellow),” removing the possibility of human error (both accidental and deliberate) allowed for by the phrase “he who the judges find (guilty).”

One extremely important thing to keep in mind about human error is that we are just as susceptible to it as others. Whether this is a result of being blinded by our desires, of incorrectly analyzing the situation, or simply not having all of the facts is irrelevant. What matters is that we accept the possibility that others might be correct, even if we don’t like the outcome. The reason that this is so important is because if we don’t accept the possibility that others might be right, we start to interpret anything that doesn’t go our way as the result of either the flaws of others or as deliberate acts of malice. We lose the respect for others that is a major tenet of Judaism, seeing everyone else as either an idiot or an enemy.

By using the phrase “he who judges find (guilty shall pay),” the Torah is telling us to have faith in the goodness of others. Not only to not see them as enemies, and not even to see them as neutral, but to believe that everyone else is a good person who is trying to do the right thing, just like you are (within reasonable limits, of course). This can apply both locally, in our everyday interactions with others, to very broadly, as in Rav Moshe Feinstein’s landmark ruling that milk advertised as milk from a kosher animal in countries with strict government regulations does not need a hechsher because we trust the government to enforce its laws to ensure that producers are selling what they are advertising, and we trust the individual inspectors to be honest and diligent, just as we would with anyone giving out kosher certifications. By having faith in others we not only make our own lives happier and less stressful, but also show them the respect due to them as God’s creations.

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  1. Mishmash of a legal code but importance of mitzvah or commandments | From guestwriters - February 25, 2016

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