When I was growing up, I was jealous of my Catholic friends who went to catechism. Although my parents were eventually able to afford Hebrew school for my younger brother, my older sister and I didn’t get to go. As a result, I grew up with no Jewish education. Zip. Zilch. Nada. I was clueless. I only knew the Jewish holidays that appeared on secular calendars. I thought all Orthodox people were old and that Orthodoxy would disappear when they died. I thought the difference between a Bat Mitzvah and a Bas Mitzvah was that one was Reform and one was Conservative.
After graduate school, I began learning about Judaism the way someone else might learn about Latvian marriage customs or Thai music - as a purely intellectual pursuit. What was Judaism beyond a collection of ritual behaviors and a cycle of holidays?
One of the biggest surprises to me was the Jewish emphasis on character development. Being Jewish wasn’t limited to concrete actions, like foregoing shrimp in lobster sauce or lighting Shabbat candles. Being Jewish meant refining one’s character. Traditional Judaism demands that we become better people, not as some lofty, amorphous goal, but in surprisingly concrete ways.
I vividly recall a scene in a local grocery store many years ago. While waiting in line, I watched a woman who had recently checked out come back into the store, return to the cashier and say, “Excuse me, but you gave me too much change,” while handing back the extra coins. I suspect most people would have shrugged, pocketed the extra money and never given it another thought. But this woman was identifiably Jewish. We look to this week’s parsha to shed light on why she took the trouble to return the few coins that didn’t belong to her.
This week’s parsha is Mishpatim, which translates as laws, rules or judgments. The first letter of the parsha is a vav – which is the Hebrew equivalent of “and”. Although most of us were taught to never to begin a sentence with the word “and”, this entire parsha begins with “And”. Grammatically, this vav links the laws of this parsha with those that have been stated previously. To which previously stated laws does this refer?
According to Rashi (11th century), the laws given in Mishpatim are from Sinai, just as the Ten Commandments, given in last week’s parsha, are from Sinai. “From Sinai” is code for “from G-d”. Rashi is teaching us that the laws in this week’s parsha come from G-d, just the same as the Ten Commandments.
Thanks to Cecil B. DeMille, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a Jew who hasn’t heard of The Ten Commandments. Since Rashi is telling us that the laws of Mishpatim are from the same Divine Source as the Ten Commandments, how do we explain the fact that most Jews are unfamiliar with the laws of Mishpatim?
A common and understandable first impression of Mishpatim is that it’s filled with arcane rules that might have governed civil society in biblical times, but have no resonance today. Mishpatim includes, among other things, laws regarding Hebrew slaves, oxen that gore people, digging pits and killing sorceresses. It’s natural to ask how these laws can help us grow spiritually today.
Look closer. With the right teacher to illuminate it, the teachings of Mishpatim are full of character-refining lessons. Treat orphans and widows especially kindly. Don’t embarrass someone who is unable to repay a loan. Accept financial responsibility for damage caused by your pet. Don’t lie. Return lost items. Lend money to those who need it, not as charity, but as a Jewish obligation.
Rabbi Zelig Pliskin (20th century) is a master at helping contemporary Jews make the connection between “obscure” Torah laws and our daily lives. For example, in Love Your Neighbor, Rabbi Pliskin draws on the verse, “When you will encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wondering, you shall surely return it to him.” (Exodus 23:4) and takes seven pages to emphasize the importance of returning lost objects.
The Jewish woman I saw in the grocery store returning money that didn’t belong to her wasn’t just doing a nice thing. Mishpatim teaches us that she was doing a Jewish thing, just as much as if she had lit a Chanukah candle or fasted on Yom Kippur.