The True Test of Piety

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, deals with civil laws that govern the interactions of people, especially those having economic consequences.  Theft, property damage and physical assault are some of the topics touched upon in this sedra.  While there is no doubt about the practical necessity for these ordinances we need to understand their religious significance.  Ramban quotes the Midrash which states, “The entire Torah depends on Justice, therefore the Holy One gave the civil laws after the Aseret Hadibrot”.  At first glance this statement is puzzling.  Religion is generally associated with “spiritual” activities such as prayer, study and mitzvot.  While everyone acknowledges the need for appropriate social behavior, its religious importance is not fully appreciated.  A disparity can be discerned in the way some people relate to ritual as opposed to ethics.  Some may pray with great fervor and be exceedingly strict in what they accept as kosher, and yet fail to display the same intense reverence in their treatment of others and conduct of business.

Our parsha is teaching us of the supreme religious importance of ethical and moral behavior especially as it relates to others.  All of the laws of Mishpatim can be subsumed under the banner of “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”  This ideal has been challenged as unrealistic since it is contrary to the selfish nature of man.  Let us admit that we are narcissistic beings whose primary concern is our personal gratification.  Is it reasonable to demand that we love every Jew as we love ourselves?  There are, of course, certain relationships in which one values his “friend” so much that he will sacrifice everything, if need be, for his welfare.  Parents are prepared to give up their lives for the sake of their children.  However, the Torah goes way beyond these limited instances and requires that we love every Jew, even a total stranger, as we love ourselves.  How is this possible to achieve?

Hillel, the great Talmudic sage provided a brilliant exposition of this imperative.  He said, “That which is distasteful to you, do not do unto others.”  We are obliged to treat others as we would want them to treat us.  As Rambam teaches, just as we are concerned for our welfare, property and honor, so should we be solicitous of the dignity and concerns of others.  This is contrary to our natural feelings.  We are very sensitive to the slightest insult, real or imagined, yet are generally not as protective of the feelings of others.  The Torah teaches that we cannot base our behavior toward fellow humans on the basis of our emotions.  This is a true test of our connection to Hashem.  If our love of G-d is of the narrow, self serving kind, in which we serve Him for the sake of what He will do for us, then our primary attraction will be to the ritualistic aspects of Judaism.  We will pray with great focus and perform mitzvot conscientiously because this caters to our desire for Divine protection.  Such a person will not be as attracted to those commandments in which we are bidden to do things for the benefit of others, especially if they are strangers.

We are exhorted by parshat Mishpatim to strive for the level of one who serves Hashem out of love and not only for personal reward.  Such a person cultivates a sense of awe for all of G-d’s creations which exhibit His infinite wisdom and compassion.  This will affect his attitude toward his fellow human beings.  He does not regard himself as the center of the universe.  Rather, he considers himself to be a special creation of Hashem whose uniqueness lies in the “Divine” soul with which he has been endowed.  His respect for others is based on his awareness that they too have been created in G-d’s “image”, and as such are entitled to the same rights and privileges he enjoys by the will of Hashem.  He realizes that all people are equal in the sight of their Creator, and that mistreatment of others violates the will of Hashem and negates the fundamental principle of, “In the Image of G-d He created him, male and female created He them.”

We can now understand why the entire Torah is contingent on justice.  The purpose of all the mitzvot is to perfect our nature through recognition and love of Hashem.  No area of Torah requires that we overcome our primal narcissism and act in accordance with objective truth more than that of ethical and just behavior in our dealings with others.  The meticulous fulfillment of these laws can elevate us to the level of those who serve Hashem out of love.  That is the objective of the entire Torah.  May we merit to attain it.

Shabbat Shalom