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Parshas Mishpatim

Im ra'ah b'einei adoneha asher lo y'adah v'hefdah l'am nachri lo yimshol l'machra b'vigdo ba v'im liv'no yiadena k'mishpat ha'banos ya'ase la (21:8-9)

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:17) teaches us that im ein derech eretz ein Torah, v'im ein Torah ein derech eretz - without "derech eretz" there can be no Torah, and without Torah there can be no "derech eretz." This seems to present an enigmatic catch-22 regarding the attainment of both Torah and derech eretz. In his commentary on the Mishnah, Rabbeinu Yonah elucidates that the Mishnah is referring to two types of derech eretz. The first "derech eretz" refers to what is commonly known as essential good manners and interpersonal kills, which one must have before beginning to learn Torah. The second "derech eretz" refers to an exceptional sensitivity which can only be acquired from learning Torah. Rav Eliyahu Lopian points out two examples of the Torah's special derech eretz which are contained in our parsha. Regarding a Jewish maidservant, the Torah gives her master a mitzvah to marry her himself or to marry her to his son. This maidservant 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. Yet Hashem, who worries equally about every single one of His children, specifically commands her wealthy master to insure her a respectable match and a promising future. While she is devastated at the destruction of her entire world and has despaired of marrying like other Jewish girls or ever leading a normal life, the Torah comes and worries about her, requiring her owner to save her from her physical and emotional poverty. Similarly, our parsha begins with a thief sold into slavery, regarding whom the law is that his master is obligated to care for his needs just as he cares for his very own (Kiddushin 20a). Further, if he only has one bed or one pillow, he is required to do without and give it to his servant (Tosefos), as we say that one who acquires a Jewish servant is actually acquiring a master for himself. If we would walk into a house and see two people sleeping, one on a bed and one on the hard floor, we would automatically assume that the person sleeping on the bed is the master and the one on the floor is his slave, but according to the Torah it is just the opposite. Specifically in regards to this dejected individual, who was caught stealing or forced to sell himself into slavery due to extreme financial hardship, the Torah requires his owner to give him the comfortable bed and treat him with respect. Such empathy and consideration couldn't come from the most sensitive human being, but only from learning Hashem's Torah. This, then, is the Torah's "derech eretz!"

V'ki yigach shor … v'im shor nagach hu mit'mol shil'shom v'huad biv'aalav (21:28-29)

A common criticism of Yeshiva students is that they spend their days engrossed in the study of archaic and irrelevant laws such as the minutiae of goring cows, yet we know that in reality, the Torah is Hashem's blueprint for creating the world and the answer to every question and problem may be found therein, as evidenced by the following story. A panic-stricken woman once approached the Rogatchover Gaon, explaining that several weeks had passed during which her newborn nursed properly during the week but absolutely refused to nurse on Shabbos, thereby endangering his health. The Rogatchover nonchalantly suggested that on the following Shabbos she should wear her weekday apparel rather than her Shabbos clothes. Bizarre as his suggestion seemed, she followed his advice with blind faith and was amazed to discover that by donning her regular clothes the problem went away as the Rogatchover had predicted. To her incredulous inquires as to the source of his supernatural abilities, he casually explained that the answer to her dilemma was "explicit" in the Talmud. Our verses differentiate between the laws regarding an ox which gores only periodically, a "tam," and one which is confirmed as a habitual gorer, a "mu'ad." The Mishnah in Bava Kamma (4:2) posits that an animal which has gored repeatedly - but only on Shabbos - is considered to be a "mu'ad" with respect to its actions on Shabbos but a "tam" regarding damages it may cause during the week. The Yerushalmi there (19b) explains that this is because the ox gets confused on Shabbos when it sees the people wearing nicer, cleaner clothes to which it isn't accustomed, causing it to go berserk, but during the week when it recognizes its surroundings it behaves normally. Based on this, the Rogatchover deduced that it was only natural to conclude that the woman's nursing difficulties stemmed from the fact that her baby didn't recognize her in her Shabbos finery, and indeed a minor wardrobe change resolved the problem - archaic indeed!

Kol almana v'yasom lo sa'anun im ano s'ane oso ki im tza'ok yitzak ali shamoa esh'ma tza'akaso (21:21-22)

When referring to the pain caused to a widow or orphan and his subsequent cries of anguish to Hashem, why does the Torah use seemingly redundant double expressions three times in one verse? Rav Mordechai Kaminetzky relates a moving story about a young father and husband who suddenly passed away one spring day. As the mother 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 herself wondered who will 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 coming 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, proceeded to lecture her about the need for manners and gratitude. The innocent girl looked up at her mother, and through a tear-stained face managed to explain her actions: "Daddy didn't get one." The Kotzker Rebbe explains that our verse uses double expressions to teach us that the pain of widows and orphans is twofold. In addition to the natural hurt of the slight or insult, the cruel treatment reawakens deep wounds as it causes 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.

V'el Moshe amar aleh el Hashem ata v'Aharon Nadav v'Avihu v'shivim miziknei Yisroel v'hishtachavisem merachok (24:1)

The Gemora in Sanhedrin (52a) recounts that while Moshe and Aharon were leading the way, Nadav and Avihu were following behind them and wondered aloud to one another when their father and uncle might die so that they could assume the mantle of leadership, to which Hashem replied that "we'll see who will bury who." As Rashi explains, the Gemora is coming to teach us that it was for this act of seeking power that they died prematurely. This is difficult to understand for two reasons. First, the Torah itself seems to give an alternate reason for their death, namely that they brought a strange fire on the Altar regarding which they weren't commanded. Second, nowhere do we find that the pursuit of control is a capital crime. The Steipler beautifully resolves these questions based on a Gemora in Rosh Hashana (17a-b). The Gemora there states that Hashem overlooks the sins of a person and gives him time to repent if he makes himself humble and unassuming. The Gemora in Sanhedrin doesn't mean to say that they were put to death for seeking honor and glory. Rather it is bothered by the fact that Hashem normally allows a person an opportunity to repent and rarely punishes him on the spot; if so, why were Nadav and Avihu immediately killed for their incorrect actions? To that the Gemora answers that almost a year previously, they had expressed their jealousy and desire for power and therefore didn't merit Divine mercy to give them time to atone for their actions. While the actual cause of their death was the foreign sacrifice as the Torah states explicitly, the reason Hashem acted so strictly in judging them was because they had invited in upon themselves by coveting the leadership. Based on his explanation, we may now resolve an apparent difficulty in אלקי נצור, the prayer we recite at the end of the Shemoneh Esrei. Seemingly, the most important requests contained therein are that Hashem should open our hearts to His Torah and us to chase after the performance of mitzvos. If so, why don't we begin with this? The aforementioned Gemora in Rosh Hashana mentions that there is one other way to merit Divine leniency: to overlook wrongs done to us and not respond to insults. If Hashem grants our request to help us excel in our Torah study and mitzvos but judges them strictly, we don't stand much of a chance. Therefore, we first ask for help in obtaining these two keys to eliciting Hashem's mercy - that we should be silent toward those who curse us, and that we should feel and act humbly - and only after we have the tools to merit Divine compassion are we able to continue with our primary request.

Ohr panecha aleinu adon nisa v'shekel esa b'veis nachon v'nisa (Yotzer L'Parshas Shekalim)

In the Yotzros - the additional prayers recited in some congregations - for Parashat Shekalim, this petition forms the basis of the chazzan's refrain during the Mussaf prayers. It is difficult to understand, however, why we beseech Hashem for the opportunity to contribute a shekel to the Beis Hamikdash when the Torah specifically emphasizes (30:15) that every Jew is to contribute half that amount, not more and not less. Rav Yehoshua of Belz suggests that this glaring difficulty actually provides us with an ingenious resolution to another question. The Gemora in Berachos (20b) recounts that the Heavenly angels questioned Hashem that after He wrote in His Torah (Devorim 10:17) that he doesn't show favoritism, how could He be partial to the Jewish people (see Bamidbar 6:26)? Hashem replied that how can he not show favor to us after He commanded us to recite Birkas HaMazon only after we have eaten to the point of satiety (Devorim 8:10) and we are nevertheless stringent to do so even after consuming much less. We see from this Gemora that we merit "preferential treatment" for performing mitzvos in a stricter manner than that required by the Torah. If so, how can we request such treatment in conjunction with the half-shekel, which is one of the few mitzvos regarding which the Torah actually forbids us to be stringent by giving more? However, the Mishnah says in Shekalim (1:6) that when two people jointly give one shekel, they are required to add a small amount (known as קלבון) corresponding to the amount they saved by not having to pay the money-changer to break the shekel into two half-shekels. Thus, by bringing one whole shekel, it is possible to give more than is required, and it is this opportunity that we request of Hashem, which will indeed cause Him to shine on us the light of His face, may it be speedily in our days!

Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) The Torah requires (21:6) the piercing of the ear of a Jewish slave who doesn't wish to leave his master when the time arrives that he may go free, and he then continues to serve his master until the yovel (jubilee year). Rashi explains that the piercing is done specifically in this way as a punishment to his ear which heard at Har Sinai Hashem's prohibition against stealing, and nevertheless proceeded to steal or sell himself into the service of another human being. However, Rashi explains elsewhere (20:13) that the prohibition against stealing in the Aseres HaDibros which were said at Har Sinai refers to kidnapping, the stealing of people, and not to the stealing of money or possessions. If so, why is the ear being punished for violating a prohibition which it seemingly did not hear at Har Sinai? (Chanukas HaTorah, M'rafsin Igri, Maskil L'Dovid)

2) The Torah discusses (21:22) the punishment to be meted out when men are fighting and inadvertently strike a pregnant woman and cause her fetuses to be miscarried. Since we have a principle that the Torah speaks in terms of how things commonly occur (see Rashi 22:30), why does it refer to the standard, default case as one in which the woman is pregnant with multiple children? (Mayaan Beis Ha'Shoeiva by Rav Shimon Schwab)

3) The Mishnah (Gittin 11b) quotes the opinion of the Tanna Rebbi Meir that it is preferable for a slave to remain a slave than to be freed, and therefore a 3rd party may not unknowingly acquire on his behalf a document which frees him. The Torah states (21:25-26) that if the master knocks out the eye or the tooth of the slave, then the slave must be freed immediately. According to the opinion of Rebbi Meir that the slave actually prefers to remain a slave, after he has already suffered the loss of an eye or a tooth, why does the Torah further "punish" him by forcing him to go free prematurely? (Maharatz Chayos Gittin 12b, Haaros Kiddushin, Darkei Mussar, M'rafsin Igri)

4) The Torah forbids (23:8) a judge to receive any form of bribe from either of the litigants. Why doesn't it similarly prohibit the litigants from giving a bribe to the judge? (Nesivos Rabboseinu)

5) The Gemora in Kerisos (9a) derives from the national "conversion" at Har Sinai that one of the essential components of conversion to Judaism is immersion in a mikveh. It asserts that this took place before Moshe Rabbeinu sprinkled on them the blood of the sacrifices (24:8), to which ritual immersion is a necessary prerequisite. Where did the Jews find a kosher mikveh in the middle of the desert? (Gemora Shabbos 35a, Ananei HaKavod quoting a letter of the Ohr Somayach)

© 2006 by Oizer Alport. Permission is granted to reproduce and distribute as long as credit is given. To receive weekly via email or to send comments or suggestions, write to

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