Torah Insights for Shabbat
Parshat Mishpatim 5758
February 20, 1998
Parshat Mishpatim contains, according to Maimonides' count, fifty-four commandments, and rivals most other parshiot as the basis for all Jewish legislation.
There are different types of mitzvot in the parshah. First are those known as ritual laws, laws that seek to define the relationship between man and his Creator (bein adam laMakom). Then there are civil laws, which define the legal relationship between man and his neighbor (bein adam lachaveiro).
Finally, there are laws that have a specific ethical dimension to them. In this context we enter into another realm wherein a person is viewed as having been created "in the image of G-d" (tzelem Elokim), codifying the way that we are to view all of mankind.
This concept is arguably the greatest teaching that Judaism has given the world. Every human being is created in the image of A-mighty G-d and partakes in those essential Divine values. As such, every human being is infinitely important, utterly unique, and deserving of absolute respect. One dare not desecrate, for any reason, the tzelem Elokim of a fellow human being.
The tzelem Elokim aspect of man, expresses itself in a unique fashion in our parshah. For example, the law states that one is obligated to loan a poor person money. Still, the lender has the right to ask for collateral. When evening comes, however, the lender must return the collateral. Why? "Because it is his only covering; it is the garment for his skin. In what will he sleep? And it will be when he cries out to Me that I shall listen, for I am compassionate."
Allowing this poor person to go through the night cold and miserable would violate his tzelem Elokim. Hence, even though the lender has the absolute right to collateral, he dares not use it to denigrate the tzelem Elokim of the borrower.
Halachah - Jewish Law - not only establishes our relationship to G-d, it forms the basis for all civilization. Hakadosh Baruch Hu revealed laws to sustain the entire world, not just the Jewish people. His system of law, which revolves around the twin poles of justice and righteousness, is rooted in the knowledge that man is tzelem Elokim.
This point is brought out forcefully by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l, in his classic essay, Ish Hahalacha. The Rav takes pains to point out the relationship between halachah as an ideal construction, and the world.
"Halacha," he writes, "has a fixed a priori relationship to the whole of reality in all of its fine and detailed particulars. Halachic man orients himself to the entire cosmos and tries to understand it by utilizing an ideal world, which he bears in his halachic consciousness. All halachic concepts are a priori, and it is through them that the halachic man looks at the world.... Halachic man's ideal is to subject reality to the yoke of the halacha."
Rabbi Soloveichick provides a philosophy of halachah in teaching us about the goal and overall thrust of the halachic system.
"Halachic man implements the Torah without any compromises or concessions," he continues. "When a person actualizes the ideal halacha in the very midst of the real world, he approaches the level of that godly man, the prophet--the creator of the worlds.
He takes up his stand in the midst of the concrete world, his feet planted firmly on the ground of reality, and he looks about and sees, listens, hears, and publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan.
"My uncle, R. Meir Berlin told me that once R. Hayyim of Brisk was asked what the function of a rabbi is. R. Hayyim replied, 'to address the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.' The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halachic man follows, when he, as a Rabbi and teacher in Israel, serves his community."
ere the Rav tells us that halachah is a Divine system of legislation that sees tzelem Elokim as its focal point. Every area of Jewish law--be it ritual, civil, or ethical--is a manifestation of the Divine will and wisdom that has to be imposed upon this mundane world. All of Jewish law reflects the grandeur of the Creator.
Rabbi Ezra Labaton
Rabbi Labaton is rabbi of Congregation Magen David in West Deal, New Jersey.
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