Parshas Mishpatim - Living A Good Life Or A Godly Life
This shiur has been generously sponsored by Rachel Pekarsky in the merit that we all have continued strength and clarity in our challenges and decisions. To dedicate a shiur please email us at Nitzotzos@gmail.com so that we may continue this holy project.
וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם:
"And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them." (Shemos 21:1)
Our Parsha begins with the words vieileh hamishpatim, AND these are the laws… The letter vav (and) implies this Parsha is a continuation of a previous subject. But the Torah is unclear? Since we are at the very beginning of the Parsha, what topic are we continuing?
Rashi offers two explanations. The first answer is that just as the Aseres Hadibros, the Ten Commandments, in the previous Parsha were given at Har Sinai, so too all of the many laws given in Parshas Mishpatim were given over to Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai. The “vav” that implies a continuation is not a continuation of a previous topic but a conceptual connection that exists between the Aseres Hadibros and the financial laws we find our Parsha.
The second answer that Rashi gives is that Parshas Yisro ended with a discussion about the mizbeach (the altar) and Parshas Mishpatim, with its many financial laws, is a continuation of that discussion. How is one connected to the other? The connection is not conceptual but geographic. The semichas haparshiyos teaches us that the Sanhedrin that adjudicates the financial matters discussed in our Parsha is meant to be located next to the Beis HaMikdash where the Mizbeach is found.
Several questions arise when we consider these two answers of Rashi.
The first answer that indicates that there is a conceptual connection between the Aseres Hadibros and our Parsha begs the question, what is the significance of the fact that the financial matters of the Torah were given over on Har Sinai? Does the location of where we hear God’s word matter? Would these laws be less significant if they were given at a later date in a different place?
The second answer that teaches us that the location of the Sanhedrin is also somewhat difficult. The Sanhedrin is next to the Beis HaMikdash. There are many holy vessels found in the Beis HaMikdash. What is the inner connection between the Mizbeach and the Sanhedrin?
Lastly, whenever Rashi offers two explanations it is important to understand that these are not two totally disparate answers. One answer is not truer than the other. Rashi is providing us with two ways of seeing one idea. Each answer provides us with a partial insight that when seen together paints for us a total picture of one all-encompassing truth. However, these two answers of Rashi only seem to have a very tenuous connection. Each answer stresses geography, the location of where we heard these laws or the location of the Sanhedrin, but this fails to teach us any idea. What is Rashi trying to teach us?
The Godly Life
Over the many years of teaching teenagers I have found that one of the common questions they have is, why is the Torah necessary? “Can’t I be a good person without the Torah? Don’t gentiles also walk elderly ladies across the street? I know many “Rabbis” who act dishonestly and treat people without respect. I just don’t see the point.” Now it is true that without the Torah we would not know to put on teffilin or how to observe Pesach but what about our Parsha? After all, the court systems we have today in democratic countries seemingly do a good enough job at keeping the peace. Do we need the Torah to teach us what it means to live in a civil society?
The Torah is not meant to teach us how to live a good life but how to live a Godly life. A good life is one that is lived with compassion and a generosity of spirit. If life were only meant to be good then the choice point in our life is limited to good vs bad. Is this a choice that is compassionate and generous? Does this choice place myself and my needs above others and their needs? If we choose incorrectly then we are “bad” people. The choice in this case is, do I live my life sitting in the dirty gutter or do I live a life of dignity?
A Godly life is not merely a question of good or bad but of human or transcendent. If our question is good or bad then even if we choose good we are still a human being motivated by human characteristics. Our human soul is always motivated by self-preservation. The human soul understands that its condition is finite and therefore it lives with a fear of death. The choice to be good might be a choice that is generous and compassionate but it also might be motivated by narcissism. If we all act kindly to one another then society can preserve itself. If I act appropriately towards others perhaps they will act this way towards me. The world keeps on spinning but at the end of the day, at best, we are human.
Not so in a Godly life. In a Godly life the choice is, will we be merely a human motivated by self-preservation, or will we be Godly, motivated by Godly impulses. The Godly soul is infinite. It is not concerned with self-preservation because it is not concerned about death. The Godly impulse is not to do good for another because of the way that it will impact you but because of the way that it impacts them. As opposed to the human soul which sees the world in a narcissistic fashion, the Godly soul sees the world altruistically. Motivated by a desire to do what God wants us to do in this world, the person seeking to lead a Godly life finds himself standing between creation and the Creator. Far from the choice of whether or not to sit in the dirty gutter, the Godly life is one of transcendence. We are gifted with the opportunity to serve Him and in so doing our choices make us more Godly. The world does not just keep on spinning; it learns how to truly live for another. It transcends itself.
Finding God In The World
We do not need the Torah to teach us how to lead a good life. The Torah is not Hammurabi’s code. The Torah that we received at Har Sinai expanded our range of options. As a nation we were endowed with the opportunity to transcend our mortal existence and represent God in this world. Indeed, this is what it means to be the Chosen Nation.
The Medrash teaches us that God created the world so that he would have dwelling place in the lower realms. We reveal God in this world not only through the rituals we perform (teffilah, kosher etc...) but by acting in a Godly way in our mundane everyday life. From this perspective acting with integrity in our businesses and fasting on Yom Kippur are both equally Godly. They both represent God's mission for us to reveal Him in this world. It is unfortunate that some Jews may not miss a minyan and learn large amounts of Torah but are dishonest when it comes to their financial dealings. Not only because they are causing a massive chillul Hashem but because they have clearly missed the point of Torah in this world. Parshas Mishpatim was also said at Har Sinai. The way that the Torah teaches us to build a society is just as Godly and important as the belief that there is only One God. The highest court in the land is located not just next to the Beis HaMikdash in a general sense but next to the mizbeach where we bring our korbanos. The word korban comes from the same language as karov, to draw close. The Sanhedrin that adjudicates our mundane interpersonal matters must be permeated with the atmosphere of the mizbeach. Both bring God close to us in our lives. Rashi was teaching us about the Godliness of our mundane life. Had we heard these laws outside of the context of Har Sinai the implication would have been that they are less significant then other, more "spiritual" mitzvos. Had the Sanhedrin merely sat in Yerushalayim we would have concluded that the highest court ought to be located in the capitol city but we would not have known that it was a way of drawing close to God. We would have assumed that the court system ensures a good life but not a Godly one.