Parshat Mishpatim 5771: In Search of Jewish Standards — Honesty, Principle and Morality

by Moshe Burt

Nearing the conclusion of Parshat Yithro, Torah records the high moment to date in world history; The Asseret HaDivrot (The 10 Statements) were given on the 6th day of the month of Sivan. After Hashem presents Moshe and the B’nai Yisrael with The Asseret HaDivrot, he instructs Moshe to fashion the construction of an earthen altar — a Mizbeiyach on which to bring the various offerings to Hashem (Sefer Sh’mot, Perek 20, posuk 21).

R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, z’l in the new Hirsch Chumash (published by Feldheim in 2005 and translated to English by Daniel Haberman), provides commentary on posuk 21 (New Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Sh’mot, Parsha Yithro, Perek 20, posuk 21, page 359):

When you come before Me, what should concern you is not heaven, but the earth. The altar that you are to build before Me should represent the earth elevated to Hashem through the actions of man.

“You shall make unto Me an altar of earth”: it must arise directly from the earth… (Zevachim 58a) Even an intervening space of a handsbreadth would make the altar posul [rendered by this author- unfit].

Our Parsha Mishpatim begins teaching how The Asseret HaDibrot are the basis for a multitude of other laws, halachot designed to strengthen the Jewish nation. R’ Hirsch (Sefer Sh’mot, Parsha Mishpatim, perek 21, posuk 1, New Hirsch Chumash, page 362) opens with a commentary on the opening word — “Va’eileh”:

…Scripture spoke of the construction of the altar, which gives symbolic expression to the basic principle: Our whole relationship with Hashem is to be understood as one that provides a firm and unshakeable basis for upbuilding society in the spirit of justice and humanity and for strengthening each and every individual in the spirit of pure morality.

R’ Hirsch renders a translation and further commentary regarding this opening posuk in which Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu (Sefer Sh’mot, Parsha Mishpatim, perek 21, posuk 1, New Hirsch Chumash, pages 362-363):

“Now these are the [social] ordinances which you are to set before them in detail.”

“… Asher tashim lifnei’hem…” The expression “soom lifnei” refers fo the transmission of Hashem’s laws to Israel through Moshe — is used elsewhere in only one specific sense, namely: serving prepared food to a guest… (Breish’t Perek 24, posuk 33, Shmuel 1 Perek 9, posuk 24 and Shmuel 1 Perek 28, posuk 22). When applied to the transmission, this expression denotes a transmission so clear and comprehensive that the laws are set before us in full clarity and can be understood and carried out completely. According to Rashi’s explanation — … “like a table set before a person, with everything ready for a meal” which is drawn from the Mechilta, reflects the literal sense of the explanation.

But R’ Hirsch adds this in his commentary on Perek 21, posuk 1 (ibid, page 363):

…These verses in the Written Torah do not present before us the Law in it’s entirety; that we gather only from the Oral Torah.

This seems to indicate that this “Shulchan Aruch” — this “Set Table” represents that which R’ Hirsch relates as symbolizing the uplifting of earthly society to Shemayim — to Heaven — in the spirit of pure morality.

Although Torah places Yithro’s advise and contributions to the system of justice, enforcement and korbonot — offerings to Hashem in the parsha bearing his name, it seems fitting to discuss Yithro’s contributions to the system, in Parshat Mishpatim, in light of the halachot taught in our parsha.

How does it transpire that Yithro, Moshe Rabbeinu’s Father-in-Law, a former member of Pharaoh’s ruling circle, one who had tried every avodah zora before finding Hashem, merits that the format for law enforcement and justice in the B’nai Yisrael would flow from him?

In questioning that very point, there are numerous pertinent citings regarding Yithro in Yishai Chasidah’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Jewish Personalities (pages 306-309).

So why was it that Hashem made it that the outline for the Jewish Judiciary would flow from the Ger Yithro?

Was it Yithro’s prior experience as a minister to Pharaoh which provided him insights regarding the Judiciary and positioned him to express them to Moshe?

If Betzalel, a Jew-from-birth, was instilled with the ability and insight to build the Mishkan, why does the evolution of the Judiciary come by way of a Ger?

After all, we learn Hashem imparted to Betzalel ben Uri the insight and ability to build the Mishkan. We learn that Betzalel was the grandson of Hur who was the son of Calev and that the Malchut was promised to Miriam — Moshe’s sister and Calev’s wife. Just as we learn that later the Malchut, under Dovid and Shlomo, built the Beit HaMikdash, so too Betzalel’s building of the Mishkan seems the fulfillment of the Divine promise to Miriam.

It would seem that Yithro, like in the case of Betzalel, was also case of mida-keneged-mida, as Chasidah cited from Yalkut Shemoni, that Reuel (one of Yithro’s 7 names) was the only one of Pharaoh’s ministers to speak out against Pharaoh’s plans for the Jews and to act against the edict by running from Mitzrayim.

Chasidah also cites from Shemos Rabbah (perek 1, posuk 26) that Yithro saved Moshe’s life as a young child when Pharaoh’s sorcerers were concerned when Moshe played with Pharaoh’s crown placing it upon his own head. Yithro was the one who suggested the test of the gold and the burning coals set on a plate before Moshe. We know the story of how Moshe’s hand moved toward the gold, by the malach Gavriel moved Moshe’s hand toward the burning coal which Moshe picked up and put in his mouth causing his speech impediment.

Further, Chasidah cites Midrash HaGodol on BaMidbar (perek 10, posuk 30) which gives insight into Yithro’s kindness. After a drought year, Yithro stated;

This has been a year of drought, and I borrowed money which I used to support the poor. If I don’t go and pay my debts, I will be desecrating the Name of Heaven.

Finally, Chasidah cites Yerushalmi Brachot (Perek 2, posuk 8. ) which writes of Yithro;

When B’nai Yisrael do Hashem’s Will, HaKodesh Borchu searches throughout the world, and if he finds a righteous person among the nations, he brings him and attaches him to B’nai Yisrael. One of the examples given was Yithro.

So, it was much more than Yithro’s past governmental experience which positioned him to counsel Moshe as to formation of a Judiciary. In advising Moshe Rabbeinu on how to judge B’nai Yisrael, Yithro spoke;

“You will provide out of all the people able men, such as fear Hashem, men of truth hating lucre (gain, money, riches); and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” (Sefer Sh’mos, Perek 18, posuk 21)

As is indicated by the citings above, Yithro’s advise to Moshe was fully backed by his own actions in standing on honesty and principle.

In our parsha Mishpatim, many basic laws of civilized existence are enunciated for B’nai Yisrael. The purpose of the Mishpatim, the civil laws, are to protect the moral fiber of society by regulating relationships between men, encouraging truthfulness, sincerity and kindness while condemning immorality and deceit.

A paradigm of our parsha, the inculcation of honesty, principle and integrity in dealing with our fellow is the story told in L’lmod U’Lamed, by Rabbi Mordechai Katz, (p. 81-82, quoting Yerushalmi Bava Metzia, Perek 2, Choshen Mishpat 266) about Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach which sets a standard for Jewish sincerity in his dealing with his fellow Jews and with Hashem.

It seems that one day Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach needed to purchase a donkey for traveling. He purchased the donkey from an Arab. At that time, neither he nor the Arab noticed that the donkey bore a small package in it’s saddle.

Sometime later, a student of the Rabbi found the package and opened it. He was amazed by it’s contents.

Rabbi Katz writes that the dialogue between Rabbi Ben Shetach and his student, and the story’s conclusion went something like this:

“It’s a diamond, Rebbe… A perfect diamond. It must be worth an enormous amount. Sell it and you’ll never want for money. Imagine all of the Mitzvot you will be able to do with the new-found money.”

Rabbi Ben Shetach shook his head and responded “I may be able to perform many Mitzvot with the money … but they will never cancel the demerit that will be mine if I keep property which is not mine. No, I will return the diamond to its rightful owner, the Arab.”

But the student responded, “why not keep the diamond? The Arab will never know of his loss.” Rabbi Ben Shetach responded, “But Hashem will know what I have done. I did not earn the diamond and so it is not mine.”

Rabbi Ben Shetach was as good as his word and returned the diamond to the astonished Arab. “I don’t believe that anyone could be that honest” said the Arab. “The Jews must have wonderful laws. Blessed be the G’d of Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach.”

Rabbi Ben Shetach’s strict adherence to Mishpatim, to common decency to his fellow man created a great Kiddush Hashem and should serve as an example for all to follow, to fulfill all of Hashem’s Mitzvot with equal zeal.

Imagine the merit to be earned collectively by a unity of B’nai Yisrael treating each other — our fellow Jew, at all levels from daily man-in-the-street dealings, or between merchant and customer, bus driver and passenger, employer/employee, civil-servant and Yosef Q. Jewish Citizen, as well as those governing toward those being governed, as Yithro the righteous Ger did, or as Rabbi Ben Shetach treated the itinerant Arab in our story, not even his Jewish brother.

And imagine building on that national kindness and unity with the rock-solid, unified, unequivocable principle — Kol Ha’aretz Shelanu (This is Our Land)! This seems a logical evolvement of Bein Adam L’Chaveiro applied to Bein Adam L’Mokom, an outgrowth of fair and righteous dealing between one and his fellow as extended to our relationship with Hashem.

And so Yithro, through his kindness, honesty and principle merited to advise and format the Judicial system of B’nai Yisrael, and both he and Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach seem as paradigms of what R’ Hirsch described regarding the Mizbeiyach as symbolizing the “upbuilding society in the spirit of justice and humanity and for strengthening each and every individual in the spirit of pure morality.”

Finally, there is a Torah Gems citing of Ibn Ezra on Parsha Yithro regarding the appointment of a judicial system, and the application of that lesson to all of us:

“The Torah did not mention ‘G’d-fearing men’ because only Hashem knows what is in man’s heart.” (Torah Gems, Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Parsha Yithro, page 131)

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard, captive Gilad Shalit and the other MIAs be liberated alive returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage to prevent the eviction of Jews from their homes and to prevent the handing of Jewish land over to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.