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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them. (21:1)

Parashas Mishpatim addresses civil and tort law. Interestingly, it follows closely after the Aseres HaDibros, Ten Commandments. Surely, there must be a message in this juxtaposition. Simply, Hashem is telling us that religion applies to all areas of life. Parashas Mishpatim and the Ten Commandments were both delivered at Har Sinai, prior to the forty-day period during which Moshe Rabbeinu received the entire Torah. Clearly, we see that the laws involving one's relationship with his fellow man are no different than the Ten Commandments. Thus, during the same session in which Hashem taught Moshe the most fundamental mitzvos, such as the unity of G-d, he also taught him the laws of damages incurred by one's cow. How are we to understand this?

Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, derives from here that one who feels he is above the mishpatim, ordinances, that regulate civil and tort law, is indicating that he has a similar attitude concerning his belief in Hashem. The two beliefs accompany one another. One who believes in Hashem believes that his annual livelihood is decided on Rosh Hashanah. If he resorts to cheating and other forms of irreputable behavior in business, he demonstrates that he does not believe that Hashem provides for him. One who internalizes the idea that Hashem provides whatever he needs does not have to resort to behavior that is unbecoming a Jew. To distinguish between mitzvos is to deny their Source.

If you buy a Jewish bondsman. If he has nothing, he shall be sold for his theft. (22:2)

Chazal teach us that the eved Ivri, Jewish bondsman, was a thief who was sold to pay back his debt. We must endeavor to understand why the Torah chose to begin this parsha specifically with the laws of eved Ivri. Horav Yaakov Neiman, zl, gives the following analogy to explain this. A man is blessed with two sons. One son is very successful, an absolute pleasure in school. He just soaks up everything that he is taught. Discipline is never an issue with him. As time progresses, he grows into an exceptional talmid chacham, Torah scholar. Eventually, he assumes a position as a rosh yeshivah, disseminating Torah to the masses. It goes without saying that he has been a tremendous source of nachas, satisfaction, to his parents. Their other son was quite different. School was an experience that did not agree with him. He could not get along with his rebbeim, and they could not get along with him. Torah study just did not turn him on. In an effort to satisfy his growing boredom, he gravitated to places that were not conducive to his spiritual or moral growth. His social base coincided with his negative lifestyle, attracting friends from the dregs of society. He had every opportunity for spiritual growth, but he ignored it, until he ended up on the other side of the law.

Now, asks Rav Neiman, about whom does the loving father constantly worry: his son who is a rosh yeshivah, disseminating Torah to hundreds of students; or the son that is either on the street or spending time in jail? Obviously, the first son, from whom he derives much nachas, is not on his mind. It is his second son that preoccupies most of his waking hours with worry. What will he do next? Where will he end up tonight? Is he safe or is he hurt? These questions are the father's daily companion.

Hashem also worries about this son. The son who steals and does not have the money to pay back his debt is the son that "occupies" Hashem's time. Therefore, when the Torah begins the parsha that addresses the relationships between man and his fellowman, Hashem wants us to know what and who His priorities are. He notifies us that the son who steals and is a problem, who is always in trouble, he is Hashem's concern. How can he be brought back to a positive lifestyle, to a life of Torah? If this is Hashem's concern, it certainly should also be ours. This is the message that the Torah is conveying with its placement of eved Ivri at the forefront of the parsha.

A similar idea is to be gleaned from the Torah's drawing a distinction between the payment for one who steals an ox or sheep, either selling or slaughtering the animal. He must pay five times the value of the ox or four times the value of the sheep. The difference between the two species is attributed by Chazal to the embarrassment that the thief sustains when he must carry the sheep on his shoulders in order to make his escape. This embarrassment is considered by the Torah as sufficient reason for reducing the payment for a stolen sheep. Once again, we see Hashem's love and concern for His errant son. Hashem does not punish like an unfeeling judge whose need for objectivity can, at times, cloud the punishment he must decree against the thief. He is not allowed to take extenuating or mitigating circumstances into account. He must address the law in black and white. In contrast, Hashem has room for grey. He punishes as a loving Father, taking into consideration all of the aspects of His son's behavior.

The parshah concerning the eved Ivri is a parsha of chinuch, education. The Torah is teaching us how to respond to a person who resorts to stealing as a means of a livelihood. He is sold into servitude to a kind and benevolent master who must do everything possible to make the servant feel comfortable and at home. He must treat him with the utmost respect and do nothing that will in any way impinge on his dignity. When he leaves, the master must give him gifts as they part ways. All of this is to send a message to the thief: We care about you. We have not given up hope on you. We look forward to welcoming you back into a life of Torah and mitzvos. When the thief sees that there is still hope for him, that the door to his return has not been shut, he has a positive attitude towards returning and adopting a new lifestyle of commitment to Torah and mitzvos.

Interestingly, this approach should work in all areas of chinuch, with all types of students. One should not wait until a student falls prey to a negative lifestyle before he acts toward him in a positive and caring manner. The best and most effective therapy is pre-emptive.

And the master shall bore through his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him forever. (21:6)

A person is sold as an eved Ivri, Hebrew servant, serves his six years, and now refuses to leave. He wants to continue his servitude, claiming that he likes his master and the situation that he is in. Can he stay? The Torah frowns on such an appeal, but permits it under certain circumstances in which the eved goes through an induction process. His ear is bored with an awl and he is then allowed to continue as a servant until the Yovel, Jubilee year, after which he goes free. Chazal view the ritual of boring his ear as a form of punishment. "The ear that heard at Har Sinai, 'Bnei Yisrael are My servants - and not servants to servants (other people). This man acquired a new master for himself. Let his ear be bored." Clearly, Chazal do not paint a laudatory picture of the eved who desires to continue his servitude. What is really wrong with his request? Life in the "outside" world is fraught with challenges. Why not opt for a secure job, three meals a day and a home with a family? Is that so bad?

This is a recurrent theme throughout rabbinic literature: the ability to choose between two opposing opportunities or ideas. Hashem has granted us the ability to choose: between right and wrong; between life and death; between positive and negative. There is always a competition between these two poles, each opting to win our approval. Hashem says, "Life and death I have given (before) you, blessing and curse, and you should choose life" (Devarim 30:19).

We are endowed with seichal, common sense. We are provided with an education. Hashem wants us to make use of our G-d-given talents and abilities to employ our education and make the correct choice. At least, we should not shy away from our responsibility to confront the situation head on and make a viable choice.

Life is filled with challenges, fraught with dilemmas. We must decide who to marry, which field of endeavor to enter, how to educate our children, and to which school we send them. The list goes on and, as it continues, we become bogged down with decision-making to the point that it takes its toll on our health and welfare. How often do we muse, "I wish someone else would make the decision for me!"? After all is said and done, however, we all know that the "buck stops here." We must decide, and we must live with our decision. That is life. For some, this is the excitement of life. For others, this is what they fear. They would rather bury their heads in the ground than face the challenge of making a decision.

What we do not understand, explains Horav Chananya Malkah, Shlita, is that making a decision is not a challenge, but a responsibility. Shirking responsibility is the defining character trait of a weak person. An eved is someone who has stolen money in order to support himself. He has no way of paying back what he has stolen, so the court sells him as a servant to a benevolent master who will pay off his debt and support him for six years. He should then leave. This particular servant, however, has fallen in love with the easy lifestyle of servitude. He receives his three meals without having to fend for himself in the public workplace. His family is provided for. His children's education is addressed. Basically, he does not have any worries: no competition; no decisions; no aggravation. For what more can a person ask? Why should he not love his master? He now has the opportunity to escape from the reality of life with its constant struggles and decisions. What does he have to lose?

He loses himself, his individuality. A servant is content to have someone else take care of making his decisions for him, limiting his choices. He would rather defer his individuality to another person than confront making a decision and living with the consequences of deciding between different options. It is too much competition for his mind to handle. This attitude runs counter to everything the Torah teaches us. One must take responsibility, "step up to the plate," and personally make a decision. Someone else cannot live my life - I must live my life. When an eved says, "I love my master. I want to continue on as a slave," he is shirking his responsibility as a Jew. In fact, he denigrates himself as a human being.

Those who find fulfillment in life are those who change what should and can be changed - or, at least, they make a reasonable attempt to do so. They accept what cannot be changed, and they continue from there. They do not run away and hide. Each individual's life is a large block of stone. He, himself, is the sculptor. His ideas, ideals and talents are his tools. With his will, he can create anything. With a lack of will, he is left with a block of stone.

People do have choices in life and action. It is these choices that define greatness, heroism and freedom. Through choice, one preserves his independence, suppresses his irritability with life, overcomes apathy and elevates his spirituality. People who have survived the concentration camps remember the men and women who walked through the barracks comforting others, even giving away their last piece of bread. As a noted psychologist once wrote, "These people may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given circumstance.

The eved shirks this freedom and hides from this responsibility. This is the root of his sin. Hashem granted him abilities, and he eschewed them. It is one thing to do this temporarily for six years, but to settle for such a lifestyle for life - is sinful. Chazal teach us that there is no free man like the individual who studies Torah. One who devotes himself to Torah transforms himself into an intelligent, thinking individual. He thinks, hence, he understands. Learning clarifies the individual's relationship to all areas of life and avails him the opportunity to make a realistic, cogent decision. It gives one a hashkofas ha'chaim, perspective on life, based on a heritage from the past that has been tempered in self-sacrifice.

The word intelligence is a derivation of two Latin words: "inter" and "legere." "Inter" means between, and "legere" means to choose. Intelligence is the capacity to choose between two alternative courses of action and to make moral decisions. This ability is called bechirah chafshis, a basic tenet of our religion. True freedom is the ability to dominate over our own feelings and to prevail over impulses and thoughts. The Torah gives us this ability. The eved runs from life's opportunities, because he would rather serve than prevail. He refuses to accept the responsibility that comes with making a choice.

To the elders he said, "Wait for us here… Behold! Aharon and Chur are with you; whoever has a grievance should approach them." (24:14)

As Moshe Rabbeinu was about to leave for his ascension upon Har Sinai, he instructed the elders to remain behind and take charge of the leadership of the people. He added that primary responsibility of managing the nation would be in the hands of Aharon and Chur. Regrettably, at the most critical time in the nation's history, they did not follow these instructions. They did not consult with their elders. The Torah in Vayikra 9:1 writes: "It was on the eighth day, Moshe summoned Aharon and his sons, and the elders of Yisrael." The Torah continues with the two offerings that were to be brought: Aharon brought a young-bull for a Sin offering, accompanied by a ram for an Elevation offering; the people were to bring a he-goat for a Sin offering, accompanied by a sheep for an Elevation offering. Toras Kohanim explains that Aharon's young bull atoned for the sin of the Golden Calf, while the people's he-goat atoned for the sin of the mechiras Yosef, sale of Yosef, by his brothers, when they slaughtered a he -goat and dipped Yosef's multi-colored cloak in its blood. These two sins stand at the forefront and are archetypical of sin in general. The mechiras Yosef is the source for all sins which are bein adam l'chaveiro, between man and his fellow man. The sin of the Golden Calf serves as the source for all sins that fall under the category of bein adam l'Makom, between man and G-d.

Horav Yosef Zundel Salant, zl, asserts that these sins had a common failing which brought about their ignoble consequence: they did not consult with their elders, their gedolim, spiritual leadership. When the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf, they ignored Aharon and Chur, whom Moshe had designated as his surrogates during his absence. They should have approached these leaders to seek their counsel. They did not and, therefore, they sinned. Likewise, before Yaakov's sons decided to act against Yosef, they should have sought advice from the zakan ha'dor, elder of the generation, Yaakov Avinu. They did not, hence, they sinned. Now, when they are bringing korbanos, sacrifices, to atone for their misdeeds, it is critical that the zekeinim, elders, be there as atonement. Their presence sends a message: no longer will we act without direction from our spiritual leadership.

Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, points out that we recite in the tefillas Shemoneh Esrai: Al hatzadikim, "On the righteous, on the devout, on the elders of Your People, the family of Israel." We are praying for our spiritual leadership without whom we cannot lead our lives in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law. This tefillah is to be recited with the same level of kavanah, concentration and devotion, as the other berachos of Shemoneh Esrai, because we realize that our elders are indispensable to our spiritual welfare.

Our nation is different from other nations in that we cannot survive without the institution of zekeinim, elders. Other nations can exist without being led by sages or elders. We are unique in the fact that our zekeinim are a necessity, not merely a luxury. Rabbi Akiva compares KlalYisrael to a bird. Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, so, too, are we helpless without our elders. Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that a bird without wings has even less capabilities than any other creature/animal that had never possessed wings in the first place. Without wings, the bird is a helpless, pitiful creature. We are similar to that bird. Without our leadership, we are helpless and pitiful. Our zekeinim are the sine quo non of our survival. To usurp the power of the elders is tantamount to striking a fatal blow at the life force of the Jewish nation.

Rav Matisyahu relates that he heard a more penetrating perspective from Rav Chaim. A generation that has lost its spiritual leadership is referred to as a dor yasom, an orphaned generation. Rav Chaim explained that an orphan seems to have someone to address his needs. There is either a surrogate, a guardian or an orphanage. There is someone who cares about him and who will continue to take care of him. A yasom, however, is a person whose needs are not really known to us. Even the individual that cares for him has no clue as to what the orphan's needs actually are. Only a father and mother know what their child needs. Only parents fight with mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, to see to it that their child's needs are provided for. They know, and they provide. When a child becomes orphaned, he loses the people who understand his needs. A generation who has lost its elders has lost the individuals who had been acutely aware of its needs. The elders are Klal Yisrael's guardians, who understand their character and the true nature of their needs. A simple person provides; a gadol knows what to provide.

Va'ani Tefillah

Va'yishalchu mi'goi el goi u'mimalacha el am acheir. Lo hiniach ish e'ashkam.

And they wandered from nation to nation and from one kingdom to another. He (Hashem) did not permit any man to oppress them.

Siach Yitzchak distinguishes between the terms am and goi, which are used to describe a nation. An am is a conglomerate of people who have combined to establish a nation with leadership and laws. A goi, on the other hand, is a large group who lives together as a "so called" nation, but do not have a government to lead them. Each one of these groups has a disadvantage concerning the Jews, who have had the misfortune to have encountered each group during our long exile. The am has a government, but often it can be a dictatorship that does whatever it pleases and treats the people under its rule in a degrading manner. There is an advantage, however, insofar as there is some form of law, and common people cannot just do whatever they want. The goi is a combination of individual people who each can do whatever he pleases. There is no ruler who governs.

Klal Yisrael has had to wander between the goiim and the amim. In each situation, Hashem has promised to protect us. Lo hiniach ish l'ashkam. "He did not permit any man to oppress them." We have endured. We have survived. Our tormentors have not.

L'zechar nishmas

by his family:
David, Susan, Daniel, Breindy, Ephraim, Adeena, Aryeh and Michelle Jacobson
and great grandchildren

Peninim on the Torah is in its 14th year of publication. The first nine years have been published in book form.

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