The Parshas in Review

Rabbi Reuven Mann

Popularity Is Not An Indicator of Truth  

Last week’s Parsha Ki Seesah begins with the commandment about the proper way to take a census of the Jewish people.  The rule is that it is prohibited to count the Jewish people in a straightforward manner.  To this day we use indirect methods of counting in order to find out how many Jews are convened at a given time and place.  On the surface the reason for this stricture is difficult to comprehend.  Counting seems like an ordinary, practical necessity devoid of any ethical implications.  Why does Judaism have an issue with it?

In my opinion it has to do with the problem of human insecurity.  There is a powerful feeling that while the individual is vulnerable, “in numbers there is strength”.  Thus every institute, organization, society is always preoccupied with “growth” and “expansion.”  There is an unspoken feeling that bigger is better and the more members you have the more significant you are.  It is because of this that every religion is engaged in proselytizing; they actually believe that numbers mean something, that if more people belong to your religion it increases its validity.

In my opinion Judaism rejects the notion that popularity is an indicator of truth.  To the contrary, people are attracted to that which pleases the emotions, not what is objectively true.  Judaism does not seek out and initially discourages potential converts.  Our numbers are miniscule compared to the other “major religions”.  Hashem tells us that He did not choose us because of our numbers because “you are the smallest of all the nations.”  Judaism actually believes that it’s very rare for the truth to be popular.  Indeed, our father Abraham was called “Ivri” because “all the world was on one side and Avraham was on the other side.”  The truths he discovered about the existence of G-d and the manner in which we should serve Him were contrary to people’s religious emotions and remain so to this day.  Judaism does not appeal to man’s religious feelings but to the divine soul, the part of him that reasons, understands and comprehends higher truths.  It commands us to use our minds in the search for G-d and to seek to ascertain His will not as we would like it to be but as He has revealed it to us in His Torah.  Our security does not reside in numbers but is the firm conviction, arrived at through diligent study and effort, that Moshe emes vetoraso emes (Moshe is true and his Torah is true).  Shabbat Shalom

Finders Keepers    

The main theme of Parshat Mishpatim is the civil laws that govern inter-personal relations and thus assure the smooth functioning of an orderly society.  Thus, many of the Torah laws regarding liability for damages and criminal actions are spelled out in great detail.    In addition to these regulations, the parsha obligates us in unique acts of kindness to our fellow Jews.    For example, we are obligated to assume responsibility and see to the return of the lost object of a fellow Jew.  We should appreciate the full significance of this Mitzvah.   In our secular society one is not legallly bound to return lost objects.  As the popular saying goes, “finders keepers losers weepers.”  Whenever a person goes out of his way and does return a lost wallet or other object of value he is regarded as someone very special.   However, a Jew has no option in this matter.  It is a Mitzvah of the Torah to care for and return lost objects.  It is interesting to pay attention to the language the Torah employs in stating this commandment.  The verse says, “If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him.”  The Torah is referring to the lost object of any fellow Jew.  Usually when specifying obligations we have to other Jews the Torah employs the term “friend” or “brother”.  For example: “You shall love your friend as yourself” or “Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother.”  The Torah uses this term to teach us that all Jews are part of one family and should regard and treat each other with the concern we would extend to personal friends.  Why then in the case of returning lost objects does the Torah single out the property of one’s enemy?

Ideally, of course, all of Israel should be one happy family with great mutual respect and affection.  Unfortunately, however, we are not quite there yet.  We are a very divided people and have not yet elevated ourselves above the sin of baseless hatred.  So while we have many friends we sometimes have enemies, or people we dislike intensely.  Perhaps they have offended or mistreated us for no good reason and, to put it bluntly we just “can’t stand them.” What happens if you notice an object on the street and instantly recognize that it belongs to this “lowlife” who has been treating you in a mean fashion?  Your immediate instinct is to simply move on.  Why should I have to bother with his lost property? Too bad!  He deserves it!  The Torah, however, maintains that this is a genuine test of one’s character.  The truly godly person does not act according to the dictates of his emotions.  He doesn’t only serve Hashem when it feels pleasant and is in line with his innate sense of right and wrong.  He is humble and submits to the will of Hashem who is the ultimate arbiter of what is good and what is evil.  The Torah is teaching that we must overcome our natural inclination and act in accordance with the dictates of Hashem even when it is painful to the ego.  The one who returns the lost object of his “friend” is performing a very significant Mitzvah.  The one who returns the property of his enemy is operating on the highest level of perfection.