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Parshas Mishpatim - Vol. 10, Issue 18
Compiled by Oizer Alport
This Shabbos is the yahrtzeit of Rav Yisroel Salanter (25 Shevat), the founder of the Mussar movement. It has been noted that his yahrtzeit traditionally falls during the week of Parshas Mishpatim. 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 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.
Parshas Mishpatim contains the prohibition against afflicting or causing pain to a widow or orphan. Although it is forbidden to abuse any Jew, the Torah singles out the widow and orphan due to the fact that they are particularly sensitive and vulnerable as a result of the loss they have experienced, and we must therefore be exceedingly careful in our interactions with them. Throughout the generations, our Rabbis have gone to great lengths to avoid causing suffering to widows and orphans, as demonstrated in the following powerful story related by Rav Yissocher Frand.
Rav Aharon Bakst was a Rav in Europe in the early 20th century. He was an extremely learned and erudite Torah scholar who served as the Rav in several communities until he was murdered by the Nazis in 1941. While Rav Bakst was well-respected by his contemporaries, he did not receive the universal name recognition that his scholarship and piety warranted, as he had the opportunity to do so but declined.
There was a very wealthy businessman in the town of Kovno named Shraga Feivel Frank. In addition to his material success, he was also known for his piety and respect for Torah scholars. He became a devoted follower of the mussar teachings of Rav Yisroel Salanter, who used to teach his closest disciples in Reb Shraga Feivel's attic. At the time of his death from pneumonia at the age of 43, Reb Shraga Feivel had four unmarried daughters. In his will, he instructed his wife to seek out the greatest Torah scholars she could find to marry each of his daughters, and to use his estate to provide them with their material needs.
His widow Golda Frank took the directive seriously and thoroughly researched each potential candidate. The oldest daughter married Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, who went on to become the Rosh Yeshiva in Slabodka and Chevron. The second daughter married Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, who eventually became world-renowned as the Rosh Yeshiva in Slutzk and Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem, and was the father-in-law of Rav Aharon Kotler, the founder of Beis Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood. The third daughter married Rav Boruch Horowitz, who was a Rav in Lithuania and was later appointed Rosh Yeshiva in Slabodka. The fourth daughter married Rav Sheftel Kramer, who served as the Rosh Yeshiva in Slutzk and later as the Mashgiach of the yeshiva in New Haven, Connecticut, and was the father-in-law of Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, the founder of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.
The widow Golda Frank clearly chose wisely, and such illustrious descendants were a fitting legacy for her righteous husband. However, before marrying Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, her oldest daughter was first engaged to Rav Aharon Bakst. During the engagement period, Rav Bakst came to visit his fianc?e and her family, and he tried to help them out by packing up some of the merchandise in their factory, which he proceeded to tour. When Mrs. Frank heard about this, she began to have doubts. Even though she had been assured about her future son-in-law's diligence and serious commitment to his Torah studies, he seemed to be showing an interest in mundane business dealings. She was worried that this side of him would become even more prominent after the wedding and would slowly pull him away from the bais medrash (study hall), which was certainly not what her husband had in mind. After consulting with a Rav, Mrs. Frank felt that she had no choice but to call off the engagement, and her daughter went on to marry Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, one of the top students in the Volozhin yeshiva.
Meanwhile, Rav Aharon Bakst returned to his studies in the Slabodka yeshiva and developed into one of its prized students. When the position of Rosh Yeshiva became vacant, the Alter of Slabodka offered it to Rav Bakst, but he declined. When the Alter pressed him for a reason, he explained that if he was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of the renowned Slabodka yeshiva, Mrs. Frank would realize what a tremendous mistake she had made in canceling the engagement due to her concern about him becoming a businessman. When she saw the true potential of the man who could have been her first son-in-law, she would be devastated, and Rav Bakst elected to forego the position to avoid causing pain to a widow. Instead, the job was given to Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, the man who married his ex-fianc?e. Most people in such a situation would leap at the opportunity to avenge their reputations and hurt egos by showing the woman what a foolish and impetuous mistake she had made, but Rav Bakst was willing to give up the opportunity to serve as the head of one of the most prestigious yeshivas in the world, all to avoid causing suffering to a widow who had already endured so much.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) If a minor child breaks something, is he required to pay for the damage after his Bar Mitzvah? (Bach and Taz Orach Chaim 343, Mishnah Berurah 343:9, Biur HaGra Choshen Mishpat 424:15)
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)
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