Parshat Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1-24:18; Jeremiah 33:25-26; 34:8-22.
Every year I am amazed at the lessons in sensitivity that the Torah teaches us in this Torah portion.
One would think that the Torah would begin its laws (mishpatim), given at Sinai, regarding the High Holidays or the service in the Tabernacle or the requirement to tithe, etc.; but it first chooses to discuss the unsavory person who is a thief and needs to be sold into servitude. The Torah is worried about the weakest among us; and, in order for the thief to be rehabilitated, he is sold to a fine Jewish person who is obligated to treat not only him with respect but assist his family with their needs, too.
It’s such a contrast to the penal system that we know, where the perpetrator exits incarceration worse off than when entered, and his family is abandoned.
We also see compassion when the Torah needs to penalize a thief. There is less monetary punishment when one steals an animal that necessitates being carried on one’s shoulders, embarrassing the thief, than if one stole an animal that’s able to walk on its own. The Torah takes into consideration one’s emotions when issuing a penalty.
In a fascinating ruling, we see how the Torah expects us to refine our characters. The Torah instructs us to rush to the aid of an animal suffering under too heavy a load. However, if two animals were suffering, one belonging to one’s friend and one belonging to one’s enemy, we are obligated to first assist our enemy’s animal, in order to work on our own character refinement and facilitate a peaceful relationship.
In a later ruling, also discussing the care for animals, the Torah prohibits plowing with an ox and a donkey. One explanation is that since the ox chews its cud, the donkey may think the ox was just fed and it wasn’t. This would be insensitive. The commentators extrapolate from this law that an employer must hire people who are compatible and equal in their strengths. One worker should not feel that he’s carrying most of the load while another struggles to keep up.
These lessons in refinement helped hone the character of Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer, a great rabbi from a previous generation (1870-1953). When he walked home in Jerusalem from the synagogue, even when he had difficulty walking, he would go the long way around. When asked why, he explained that since he now must use a cane that taps on the sidewalk, he noticed that he scared off the feeding birds from the birdseed a neighbor provided for them. Fortunate is the one who learns and becomes great by refining his personality.
So many of the laws in Mishpatim are so sublime, indicating clearly that the Torah was given by God at Sinai.
Rabbi Boruch Levin is executive director at Hebrew Memorial Chapel in Oak Park.