Can Civility Sanctify G-d?
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, addresses the civil laws that govern society. That the Torah deals with everyday matters such as loans, theft, damages, punishments, and so on comes as a surprise to many. Most people make a clear distinction between societal order and religious inspiration. We don’t go to shul to learn about our responsibilities regarding borrowed objects. No one disputes that laws regulating human relationships and interactions are necessary to good governance. However, these seem to be mundane, secular, and to have no bearing on religion, which is supposed to elevate us spiritually.
The Torah takes a totally different attitude. The civil torts contained in Mishpatim have great importance, as they comprise the first set of laws that Moshe transmitted after the Revelation on Mount Sinai. One must conclude that the Torah confers spiritual significance on the proper discharge of one’s civic responsibilities.
To understand this, one must appreciate that Judaism is a unique religion. The Rambam says that the mitzvot (commandments) have two main purposes, the perfection of the body and of the soul. The body refers to all the physical needs of the individual and of mankind as a whole. Man is a social animal and cannot, in isolation, obtain all his needs and still have the freedom and leisure to pursue the higher goals of human existence.
Human progress is possible only in the context of a stable, harmonious society in which people have the opportunity to engage in productive endeavors. There is nothing more dangerous than the breakdown of social stability. When there is no governing authority in place, chaos ensues, and humankind regresses to an animalistic level.
The Rambam maintains that the ultimate purpose of the commandments is the perfection of the soul through its grasp of true ideas regarding the most important subjects, such as G-d’s existence and oneness. He says that, in an abstract sense, the objective of perfecting the soul is more important than perfecting the body.
Which should come first? Rambam answers that the maintenance of the body in its most appropriate state is a vital precondition for cultivating the soul. Thus, the establishment of a stable, just, and smoothly functioning society must be the first priority, for without that, it is impossible to engage in life’s supreme purpose.
We can now understand why the very first set of laws given to the Jews pertained to the rules and regulations that would govern their economic and social interactions. These are necessary to establish a workable system of governance. Thus, one who participates in the improvement of society is serving Hashem by fulfilling His will that man should live in the conditions most suited to perfecting his nature.
There is another dimension to the realm of the commandments “between man and man.” In a famous Talmudic story, a gentile approached the sage Shammai and asked if he could convert him while he was standing on one foot. Shammai dismissed him for his seemingly absurd request. The gentile then went to Hillel, who had an entirely different reaction, saying, “That which is distasteful to you, do not do to your friend; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
In this statement, Hillel maintained that the rules of decency that govern our behavior towards our fellow humans are not there only for practical, utilitarian purposes. They are a vital element in our relationship with Hashem. For it is the doctrine of Judaism that when one sins against a person, he also sins against G-d.
A verse in the Torah that describes Creation gives the reason: “And Hashem created the man in His image, male and female created He them.” Each person is endowed with basic rights and dignity because, not only was he created by G-d, but because he has a soul that, on some level, reflects the Creator. We must respect other people because of the Divine Image they possess. To mistreat a human is to negate his soul and diminish him to the level of an animal.
To treat all of G-d’s creatures with justice and compassion is to affirm in all our social dealings that the world and humankind are the handiwork of Hashem. Seen in that light, one who treats people respectfully and refrains from causing any willful harm or injustice to them sanctifies the name of G-d in all his social interactions. That is why the prophet proclaims, “Zion will be redeemed through justice.” May it happen speedily and in our days.