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Torah Sparks

February 21, 2009 – 27 Shevat 5769

Annual: Ex. 21:1 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Ex. 22:4 – 23:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 465; Hertz p. 311)
Maftir: Ex. 30:11 – 16 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Haftarah: II Kings 12:1 – 17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1277; Hertz p. 993)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Parashat Mishpatim is called Sefer HaBrit, the Book of the Covenant, for it begins the presentation of the mitzvot, the particulars that define the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In fact, Mishpatim contains 53 of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah. Up until this point the Torah has been a narrative; from here on it will present the laws by which the Israelites are to live, with occasional narrative breaks.

The laws of Mishpatim deal with master and slave, capital offenses, personal injury, negligence, theft, and property. There also are laws prohibiting the mistreatment of the weak and powerless – strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor. We also read about Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and major festivals. God again repeats the promise that the Israelites will inherit the land of Canaan and warns against worshiping the gods of the Canaanite nations.

The covenant is ratified at a formal ceremony of acceptance. Moses and the elders eat a meal and see a vision of God. Moses alone ascends the mountain to receive the stone tablets, remaining there for forty days and nights.

1. Hard Times, Difficult Choices

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you [literally, with you], do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. (Exodus 22:24)

  1. “With you” – your contribution should not lag behind how much you can afford, but should keep pace “with you” – as your finances improve, your contributions should improve accordingly. (Sefer Ha-Derush)
  2. You are required to fulfill the commandments of charity and of helping others even if you yourself are poor, when “the poor” – i.e., poverty – is “with you,” in your own home. (Rabbi Yehiel Moshe of Kozhnitz)
  3. “To My people” -- If an Israelite and a gentile stand before you to borrow, “My people” should be given preference; if it be a poor man and a rich man, the poor man should be given preference; if it be your own poor [a relative] and the poor of your city, your own poor should be given preference over the poor of your city; if it be the poor of your city and the poor of another city, the poor of your city should be given preference, for it is said, “to the poor among you.” (Mekhilta Kaspa 1)
  4. We are commanded to lend to the poor man to alleviate his suffering... and this duty is prior to that of giving charity, since the suffering of the one who is reduced to the humiliation of openly begging is not to be compared with the suffering of the one who is too proud to do so but waits for a helping hand. (Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 197 (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt)
  5. We have been taught that when a poor man says, “Provide me with clothes,” he should be investigated. When he says, “Feed me,” he should not be investigated [for he might starve to death while waiting]. (Bava Batra 9a)
  6. If lending to the poor is an obligation and not a matter of choice then why does Scripture employ the conditional “im” [if]? It is to cover the following contingencies: If you are dealing with a rogue who never pays his debts or one who has plenty of money but pretends to be poor; or one who has no money but has food. But he would rather do business and keep his children short of food. Or one who drinks but leaves his children without food; or one who keeps a prostitute or a married woman. In such case better to give him the food and not lend to him even if you put him to shame by providing him food as charity every week. Since he is dishonest he deserves to be shamed. If you lend or give money to such a type of person he will squander it and it will never be used to keep the home going. He should give directly to his wife and children if they are decent people. (Sefer Hasidim (Rabbi Judah HeHasid ben Samuel of Regensburg), 1150-1217, Germany)

Sparks for Discussion

In difficult economic times, it is the norm that need increases while the resources available to meet that need decrease. As a result, individuals, organizations and communities have to exercise much greater care over tzedakah funds and make sometimes painful decisions about who should be helped and how much. What can we learn from our commentators about priorities in the distribution of resources? Do you agree with their choices? How would you prioritize your personal giving in the current environment? What do you expect your shul, school, and other communal organizations to do to help those in need? What do you do to help them help those in need?

2. Friend or Foe?

When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him. (Exodus 23:4-5)

  1. “Your enemy’s ox” – Rabbi Josiah says: This means of a heathen worshiping idols. For thus we find everywhere that the heathen are designated as enemies of Israel... Rabbi Eliezer says: This passage refers to a convert who has relapsed into his former evil predilections. Rabbi Isaac says: This passage refers to an apostate Israelite. Rabbi Jonathan says: The passage actually refers to an Israelite. How then can Scripture say: “Your enemy”? It is simply this: If one has beaten his son or has had a quarrel with him, he becomes his enemy for the time being. (Mekhilta Kaspa 2)
  2. Even your enemy’s ox. But it is a greater commandment to do it for your enemy than for your friend, in order to crush the evil impulse. (Bechor Shor (Rabbi Yosef of Orleans), 1140-1190, France)
  3. Moreover the halakhah sees in his unloading of the animal not only a duty you have to carry out towards your fellowmen in difficulty, but also towards the suffering animal, that tza’ar baalei hayim (the prevention of the suffering of living creatures) is a Torah commandment. To help his fellowman he would only be obligated “with him,” if the man is doing all he can himself. But for the animal’s sake, he must render assistance even if the master wrongfully and lazily stands there doing nothing and leaves the whole of the work to him. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. Rabbi Alexandroni said: Two ass drivers who hated each other were traveling along the same road. The ass of one of them fell down. The other saw it but passed him by. After he had passed by he said: It is written in Holy Writ “if you see the ass of your enemy... you must nevertheless raise it with him.” Forthwith he went back to help him with the load. The other began to think things over and said: So and so is evidently my friend and I didn’t know it. Both went into a roadside inn and had a drink together. What led to them making up? One of them looked into the Torah. (Tanhuma Yashan Mishpatim)

Sparks for Discussion

Why is the Mekhilta troubled by the phrase “your enemy’s ox?” What can we learn from this mitzvah? Our commentators suggest three possibilities – to control our natural tendency to avoid or ignore people we don’t like; to prevent the suffering of animals; or to work at turning enemies into friends. Which do you think is most important? Which can you imagine yourself doing – would you stop to help if you saw your unpleasant neighbor by the side of the road trying to fix a flat tire? What is the appropriate way to deal with those we dislike?

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