Not By Legislation Alone
Adapted From Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Parashas Mishpatim is famous for the many basic legal tenets it supplies for the Torah’s vision of an upstanding moral society. Although many legal imperatives are set down in this parasha, three of the commandments listed go farther than that.
These verses describe the law alongside a moral imperative appealing to the emotional conscience of the people. Designed to protect those in society who would otherwise have no one to rely upon to look out for their interests, the emotional appeals included in these verses indicate that the dry letter of the law does not suffice to fulfill the Torah‘s bidding.
These commandments require more than exacting behavior. The emotional inventory of every Jew must be trained to include a heartfelt compassion for those in need and a sincere desire to help the unfortunate. Without this emotional component, regardless of technical adherence to legal standards, the Torah asserts that the aid extended to those in need will not be complete:
“You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you dare to cause him pain…! For if he shall cry out to me, I shall surely hear his outcry.” (Exodus 22:21)
“If you take your fellow’s garment as security [when lending money], until sunset shall you return it to him. For it alone is his clothing, it is his garment for his skin -- in what shall he lie down? -- so it will be that if he cries out to Me, I shall listen, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25 - 26)
“Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
The common thread uniting all three of these passages is that they make an emotional appeal on behalf of the weak in society. The vulnerability of these groups invites a domineering attitude on the part of those whose strength, wealth, or power allows them to imagine that they are entitled to oppress those who are less privileged. With these verses, the Torah informs us that by no means is that the case.
But such oppression is not an uncommon phenomenon. The sort of behavior these verses legislate against are norms common in human societies across the globe and throughout history. Although these behaviors may not run in contradiction to the dry letter of the law in some legal systems, they erode the basic moral fabric of humanity. The destructive attitude that characterizes oppressing the weak can become so commonplace as to cause not a twinge of remorse on the part of those who have the power to do so.
In fact, most countries discriminate against the weak and deny them basic human rights by law! The Jewish nation was warned to choose differently. Societies always include those who lack representation, support, and guidance, and in most countries this cripples members of these groups and causes them to be held in contempt. Comes the Torah and commands: “Do not oppress.” Do not take advantage of their weakness. Do not allow them to suffer as the inferior among you.
But the lesson inherent in these passages touches a more raw nerve. How did the greatest of our people understand these commandments? As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael were being led out to be martyred for the Jewish People at the hands of the Romans, the dialogue between the Tannaic scholars illuminated the deeper meaning of these verses.
Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Yishmael, “My heart is going out over the fact that I don’t know what I am being killed for.”
Rabbi Yishmael replied, “When a person came to ask you a question or to request a legal ruling, did you ever delay him while you drank your cup, fastened your shoes, or wrapped yourself in your tallis? The Torah says, ‘If you cause him pain…!’”
“Rebbi, you have comforted me,” said Rabbi Shimon.
What does that mean? “You have comforted me”? These words pierce to the core of any sensitive person. Rabbi Yishmael’s response to Rabbi Shimon as they were being led to their death teaches us that the definition of “causing pain” that the Torah is legislating against is not limited to widows and orphans. Rather, the Torah is commanding us to sensitize ourselves to the discomfort of others even at the seemingly minute level.
Turning people away without any explanation, letting people wait in front of our closed door, or paying too little attention to what somebody else is saying are all included in the quality that the Torah is speaking out against. The widow, the orphan, and the stranger serve as the key to the development of our sensitivity since they are more vulnerable to maltreatment than others, but the sensitivity the Torah calls for is meant to be extended to every human being that we encounter. We are responsible for the feelings and the rights of everyone vulnerable to us, no matter how minutely.
The clerk who airily waves away a customer by telling her to come next week, the bus driver who closes the doors of the bus in the face of a person arriving just seconds after he begins to pull away from the curb -- these are the behaviors that the Torah refers to as “causing pain”. Budget cuts withdrawing funds from those formerly allotted to the elderly because they are incapable of protesting, striking, or taking other social action -- once again, “causing pain” to those vulnerable and incapable of properly defending their own interests.
This is the viewpoint highlighted by Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael’s conversation in the shadow of the guillotine. Rabbi Yishmael is comforted by Rabbi Shimon’s reply precisely because he agrees completely with what Rabbi Shimon is suggesting. After all, reasons Rabbi Yishmael, over my many years as the Nasi of the Great Beis Din in Jerusalem I must have unintentionally caused some pain to citizens who were in need of my services, advice, or legal ruling. Understand, this man was one of the most extraordinarily loving, giving people that human history has ever seen. However, Rabbi Yishmael’s sensitivity to other people was so refined that Rabbi Shimon’s suggestion made sense to him immediately.
These three commandments do not point to any particular sins committed by society. Rather, they warn against society’s general natural bent towards moral decay. Society is made up of individuals, all of whom have the potential and leaning to become encrusted in a hard little shell of stiff self-absorption. These laws address the needs of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor, whose cries from the sidelines can easily be overlooked. When the individuals in society are so wrapped up into themselves that no space is left to hear the cries of the people whose lives they are stepping on, there seems to be nothing to regret.
These verses make clear that fighting this inclination towards moral decay via dry legislation is simply not enough to stop it. Society is made up of individuals and it is our responsibility as individuals to constantly monitor our natural self-absorption to make sure that it does not uproot the human compassion in our hearts. Not law alone, but individual efforts to maintain and develop sensitivity to others, is the true catalyst for a healthy, highly-functioning society.