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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Mishpotim

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

The parsha dealing primarily with civil and tort law is juxtaposed on the end of the previous parsha, which details the laws of the Mizbayach, Altar. Chazal derive from here that the Sanhedrin, the court which is the supreme authority of Jewish law, should be located on Har Habayis, near the Bais Hamikdash. Horav Nissan Alpert,zl, explains the reason for this. Avodas Hashem, serving the Almighty in a Jewish way, is different from other religions, whose religious service revolves around prayer, ritual and sacrifice. Their theology consists of a code of beliefs geared towards inculcating the people to an acceptance of the rule of the Almighty and belief in Him. The Torah's code of law is different. Ours is a living Torah which covers every aspect of human endeavor, whether it is in regard to man's relationship with the Almighty or man's relationship with his fellow man. One who conducts business with integrity, pays his damages according to Jewish law, or follows the Torah's dictate for purchasing an eved Ivri is actually serving Hashem. The first of the Ten Commandments is the mitzvah of belief in Hashem; the last is the prohibition against desiring another person's property.

Our laws are G-d given. They comprise our theology. Thus, the Sanhedrin sits next to the Bais Hamikdash in order to imply that adjudicating the laws concerning one's relationship with his fellow-man is similar to offering korbanos. They both constitute a form of service to the Almighty.

Perhaps this is the reason that the Torah prohibits us from litigating our monetary disputes in a secular court of law - even if the rulings will be similar to that of the Torah. Furthermore, we do not accept gentile witnesses. As was mentioned above, rendering halachic justice is a form of avodas Hashem. It is a service reserved only for the Almighty. Accepting justice from any other source would be paying homage to a foreign deity and, as such, an affront to Hashem Yisborach.

If you buy a Jewish bondsman...If a man will sell his daughter as a who strikes a man who dies, shall surely be put to death. (21:2,7,12)

The sequence of laws that mark the beginning of Parashas Mishpatim begs elucidation. There must be a good reason that the Torah chose the laws of eved Ivri to open the parsha. Furthermore, what relationship exists between eved Ivri and murder? Horav Nissan Alpert, zl, notes that the underlying theme of this parsha is kavod ha'brios, the dignity of man. This theme is reinforced throughout the parsha. In fact, the punishments that are to be meted out are in accordance with the sin of degrading another human being's rights. This is the best way to correct the damage, to repair the hurt that was incurred.

Indeed, Horav S.R.Hirsch, zl, explains that the Torah begins the section of laws with eved Ivri in order to teach us the importance of kavod ha'brios. The eved Ivri is none other than one who was nimkar b'geneivaso, sold to pay the debts incurred through stealing. The Torah teaches us the dignity of man by first showing us how to take care of a gonif, a robber. A thief is also a human being, albeit one who is bent upon self-destruction. Yet, we must care about him and be sensitive to his needs. We may add that society in general may have played a role in his downfall. Perhaps, if we would have been cognizant of his circumstances, we would have been able to prevent his downfall.

This is the lesson of the eved Ivri: Concern about others, sensitivity to their feelings and needs, and respect for the dignity of man. The degeneration begins with a lack of respect which leads to indifference in the area of kavod ha'brios. The ultimate result can be murder. When we do not value a human being, when we treat a human being like an animal, then it is no wonder a member of this society could become a person who would kill to satisfy his needs. Some of the most heinous transgressions originate with a simple infraction and develop into a grave sin.

But for one who had not lain in ambush and G-d caused it to come to his hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee. (21:13)

The Torah grants the unintentional murderer the dispensation of fleeing to one of the Arei Miklat, Cities of Refuge, where he is protected from the close relatives of the victim. In his Igeres Ha'Mechaber the Sefer Ha'Chinuch distinguishes between the various mitzvos that we are obliged to fulfill. We must perform some mitzvos only under certain conditions; all Jews are commanded to perform other mitzvos at all times. There are two hundred and seventy of the latter mitzvos, of which forty-eight are mitzvos asei, positive mitzvos. The remaining two hundred twenty-two are mitzvos lo sa'asei, negative commandments. Of these mitzvos, only six are applicable every day, every minute of one's existence. They are: belief in the Almighty; the prohibition against believing in any deity other than Hashem; yichud Hashem, the oneness of Hashem; loving Him; fearing Him; and the prohibition against following what the mind thinks and the eyes see. The symbol of these six mitzvos are the six Arei Miklat which are available to protect a person.

The Sefer Ha'Chinuch apparently sees a common denominator between the ability of the Cities of Refuge to protect a person from physical harm and power of the mitzvos which protect one's neshamah, soul. Horav Elimelech Moller, Shlita, explains that those mitzvos temidios, constant mitzvos, which focus basically upon our belief in, and love of, Hashem serve as an island of serenity and succor for the Jewish soul.

The Sefer Ha'Chinuch suggests a reason that the arei ha'Leviim, cities in which the Leviim lived, were selected to be cities of refuge. The sublime level of yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, and devotion to Torah and mitzvos of the inhabitants earned them this distinction. Men of virtue and refinement, whose perspective on life has been influenced by Torah, will not show animus towards the unintentional murderer. Nothing will deter these people from their commitment to Hashem. Thus, they will carry out His will to love His children - even when they have erred. They will not hate the unintentional murderer, who, for some unknown reason, was Hashem's agent to take someone's life. Rather, their love and virtue will inspire him, raise him from the depths of depression and give him courage to go on.

The Ramban suggests that while "Levi" is ostensibly a reference to a specific shevet, tribe, the underlying idea of a person totally dedicated to serving Hashem applies to all Jews. Such a person is sanctified, and Hashem becomes his portion and sanctuary. He is removed from the mundane aspect of Olam Hazeh, this temporal world, as he receives his sustenance in the same manner as the Kohanim and Leviim merit subsistence from Hashem.

Thus, we can understand how one finds true peace and serenity only through Torah and mitzvos - especially those mitvos that underscore one's total devotion to the Almighty.

A wound for a wound. (21:25)

The Torah teaches us the laws of bodily damage against another person. Chazal derive from this pasuk that "adam muad l'olam," "a man is forever held responsible for his actions." The concepts of "unintentional", "unaware", "did not mean to" - do not apply. Man is always held accountable for his actions. Furthermore, we are taught that if one lays down to sleep near vessels belonging to someone else and during the course of his sleep he breaks the vessels, he is liable for damages. Although the actual damage was performed while he was asleep, he caused the damage by laying down where he did.

Horav Shimon Shkop, zl, infers a significant lesson from here regarding self-inflicted spiritual damage. One who moves too close to a spiritual/philosophic movement that might cause him harm is held responsible. True, the actual sin was accidental. He unknowingly fell in. Why did he venture into dangerous territory? Had he not gotten so close he would not have been harmed.

Chazal tell us that one does not sin unless a "ruach shtus," a spirit of foolishness had first entered into him. Chazal analogize this to one who bends over a well and peers inside. Suddenly, a strong wind blows him into the well. While his fall was accidental, had he not been there the wind could not have blown him in. The wind of foolishness, the external influences that cause one to err, are accidental. If the person would not be involved with have an association with the place/person/group/activity which is of questionable character, however, he would not have "fallen in." We note how important it is to distance oneself from anything or anyone that could spiritually imperil him. We never know when a "strong wind" can blow our way.

You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan...for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. (22:21,22)

Hashem promises to listen to cries of the widow and orphan. They have no one to whom to turn, other than their Father in Heaven, Who listens very closely to those that are vulnerable to abuse. A classic story occurred, involving the Bais HaLevi, that demonstrates how sensitive we must be to the plight of the unfortunate - especially those who have nowhere to turn. When the Bais HaLevi was a young boy studying in cheder, he witnessed the rebbe striking a young orphan boy who had fought with another boy, who just happened to be wealthy. The Bais HaLevi could not tolerate the apparent abuse to which this rebbe was subjecting the poor orphan. He left the cheder, declaring that he could not study Torah from such a rebbe who ignored the Torah's admonishment against causing pain to an orphan.

Sometime later, the Bais HaLevi became ill. The situation worsened and it looked as if he was about to leave this world. Suddenly, he woke up and started feeling better, improving until he had completely recuperated. Afterwards, the Bais HaLevi related that he was at death's door, literally one foot into the Olam Ha'emes, when he envisioned a man pushing away the Malach Ha'maves, Angel of Dealth, from him. He began searching for this man's identity, looking at photographs from years back. Finally, he came across the elusive man's picture. It was the father of the young orphan whom he had championed. Hashem rewarded him with life as a result of his concern for the plight of the orphan. Furthermore, he took a stand for the Almighty by championing His cause. He fought Hashem's fight by taking a stand against this abusive teacher.

Horav Elyakim Schlessinger, Shlita, derives from here that one who fights Hashem's fight, who stands up for those things that Hashem Himself takes issue with - will be blessed with life. Pinchas was not afraid. He acted zealously on behalf of the Almighty. He was rewarded with incredible longevity. May this be the lot of all those who take a stand for the truth, to uphold and sanctify Hashem's Name.

Do not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind those who see and corrupt words that are just. (23:8)

Some situations during the course of one's life are so compelling that they determine one's course of action. Indeed, one can reach the point of error even in areas which are usually very clear. Man must elevate himself to the point that he transcends his own vested interests, so that he sees the truth in its reality.

We find a number of instances in which people -- who under normal circumstances had been clear-thinking individuals -- suddenly present themselves in a totally diffferent light. We find that in his dispute with Shmuel HaNavi, regarding carrying out his mission of destroying Amalek, Shaul HaMelech felt that he was actually carrying out Hashem's command. This is the case despite the fact that Shmuel clearly related to him that he had transgressed Hashem's command. We observe two great leaders, one of whom feels that he is not in error. Indeed, he contends that he has performed a mitzvah. The second leader disputes this, admonishing him for violating Hashem's command.

That is exactly what occurs when one accepts a bribe. The situation does not have to involve money; it can be related to a conflict of interests or kavod, honor. It does not take much to sway one's mind. The Torah tells us the effect of bribery. This applies to everyone - regardless of his stature or virtue. Everybody has his own price. Regrettably, we do not all realize this.


1. In what proximity to the Bais Hamikdash did the Sanhedrin sit?

2. Who supports/feeds the wife and children of an eved Ivri?

3. Does an eved really serve his master forever, as the pasuk says, "V'avodo l'olam"?

4. If one were to unintentionally kill a murderer who could not receive the dealth penalty because of a lack of valid witnesses, is he sent to the Arei Miklat?

5. If one has limited funds to lend, to whom does he lend first?

6. A) How many times do we find the prohibition against cooking "a kid in its mother's milk"?

B) Why?

ANSWERS: 1. The Sanhedrin sat near the Mizbayach in the Lishkas Ha'Gazis.

2. The master must feed them.

3. No. "L'olam" means until Yovel.

4. Yes.

5. A Jew before a gentile; a poor man before a wealthy man; a member of his own community before one from out of town.

6. A) Three times.

B) We derive three prohibitions from the Torah's redundancy:

1. It is forbidden to eat meat cooked in milk.
2. It is forbidden to derive benefit from this admixture.
3. It is forbidden to cook milk and meat together.


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