I read a fascinating halachic Q and A. An American man began moving some of his business interests to Israel. His plan was to make aliya a real possibility. He began by buying a property with a small building on it in an area that was just opening up. It would be the perfect place to eventually use as a warehouse when he was ready to bring over his business to Israel. Since he was still not ready to move, he rented it out as a storage unit. Then the drama began.
His tenant was using the unit to store a variety of items that he had managed to bring into the country without paying the proper import tax. When he realized that the authorities were on to him, he disappeared. The police discovered that the unit used by the man they were after was owned by our hero… He was in Israel at the time, and they brought him in for questioning. They recognized that he wasn’t directly involved, but they wanted his cooperation. At this point, he consulted with a Rav, who felt that the question was too big for him, and took it to the world famous halachic authority, Rav Eliyashiv ztl. The reason that there was a question at all is that the civil law would treat his tenant much much more severely than the halachah would allow. They would go far beyond repayment, fining etc. and would give him a severe prison sentence. The Rav told him that he may not finger his tenant, which of course would mean that he would have to the expense of hiring a really good lawyer to prove that he had no involvement with the entire matter. He decided that whatever it took, he would stay loyal to halachah, even though his legal costs would be a really steep loss for him financially.
Many people understand the importance and relevance of halachah in ritual matters (I would, for instance not even consider taking a job that required working on Shabbos no matter what the salary, and this is probably true for you as well). When it comes to seeing the relevance of halachah in civil law, far too many people are blocked. Take a step back, and revisit Mount Sinai.
I can’t even begin to imagine what being at Mount Sinai must have been like. The bone shaking realization of truth that each Jew felt has no parallel in anything that happened in my life. I had drama in my life-births and deaths. They were limited to my own mini-world. What happened at Mount Sinai was more than that. For a moment, your private reality melded into something bigger than you can ever be on your own.
This week’s parshah, Mishpatim, deals with this-world. The laws of damages, property, relationships are the stuff that real life is made of. While some of laws may not be applicable to your life (say those concerning an indentured servant), others are the bread and butter of human controversy. The introductory words of the Parshah open you up to understanding these kinds of laws from an entirely different angle. It says, “AND these are the laws”. There is a reason that I capitalized the word AND (unlike my typos that you have grown to know and love…). Rashi tells us that it is to reattach this chapter to the previous ones. “Just as the law in the previous chapter (which narrates the Ten Commandments) was given at Sinai, the laws (of civil law) were given at Sinai”. When you read this the first time, you may find yourself raising an eyebrow. Where else would they originate, Jersey City?
Not Jersey City. Many people tragically relate laws such as being somehow less religiously relevant. They lack Sinaic drama. In his classic Ohr Gedalyahu, Rav Gedalya Shorr ztl, takes you with him on his journey to finding spiritual meaning in dealing with the real world. The Torah’s laws can be divided into different groups. Some of the laws (like the kosher laws for instance) are laws that you would never have figured out in a million years. You have to have enough faith in the One who created humans and determined that we would have to eat (and to prepare the food we use) can teach us how to do this without being spiritually compromised. There are other laws that seem to be an extension of human sensitivity. They make perfect sense. In fact, in virtually every society people have devised laws to maintain basic justice. What the Torah is telling you is that these laws, the laws of justice, are a continuum of what we heard as Sinai. They go beyond the range of the justice systems that humans can create.
Let’s go back to last week’s parshah for a minute to see how this works. G-d told us that He took us out of the mind boggling horror of slavery in Egypt. When we heard those words, what we wanted more than anything else was to dedicate our lives to serving Hashem. The way you do this demands that you serve Him, and not serve yourself. Your five senses give you information about reality. Your mind then interprets what they tell it. Your mind however is limited both by your life experience, your nature, and the inherent limitations of being human. Concretely that means recognizing that the same way that the ritual laws come from a higher source than your own mind, so does Hashem’s definition of justice.
He is the One who gives you what you have, and obligates you to use it justly. He is also the One who decided what your friend has and needs for the fulfillment of his life’s purpose. He is the One who allows governments to come to power, and limits the degree to which they can renegotiate His justice. When you learn the highly technical laws that this week’s parshah narrates, you aren’t just learning law. You are learning Hashem’s mind, His plan, and where you fit in. This is what changes you from being an interested seeker of spiritual meaning, to a devoted servant of Hashem. May we all be worthy of this change of perspective, and feel the love and awe that living with devotion brings.