Judgments to the Side of Merit
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Talk about anti-climactic! Of all the parshios to come after Parashas
Yisro, and the spectacular episode of the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, why
this one? It's so technical, and it talks about laws dealing with slaves,
One of the reasons the commentators give for the laws of slaves coming so
close to the giving of the Torah is to remind the Jewish people that
freedom means serving G-d, not running away from Him. Another reason they
give is to tell the Jewish people, while Egyptian slavery was still fresh
in their mind, not to forget what slavery was like and end up mistreating
those who may end up serving them.
Another reason for such a technical parsha so close after the Sinai Event
might have to do with the way people relate to spirituality, especially
People are into experiences. They want to feel what they are going through,
and if they can't feel it, then it is not a real experience for them. And
if it is not a real experience for them, they'd just as soon pass it up,
G-d or no G-d. They don't appreciate that often you have to create your
experiences by using your mind.
This is one of the reasons, in the words of one psychologist, why the
divorce rate is so high. Sometimes throughout the course of everyday life
feelings get confused and even battered by the nerve-wracking stress of
daily life. Then the same emotions come home and confront a
less-than-perfectly-happy life at home, and feel even more stressed out. As
time goes on, people have difficulty feeling love for one other, something
that is hard to when you are feeling negative emotions simultaneously.
What they have to do is re-focus themselves on each other's virtues to
re-create the proper emotional atmosphere, so the love can return.
Sometimes it might mean just getting dressed up and going out for a quiet
dinner together, or even just a peaceful walk. Unfortunately, many couples
don't realize this and just assume that if the feelings aren't there,
neither is the relationship.
The same is true when it comes to the religious "experience." People want
to feel loved all the time; they want to feel "up" on an ongoing basis. In
the words of one woman who wanted to abandon Torah, "Judaism just doesn't
work for me, so I'm going to try something else."
In order for Judaism to "work" for anyone, you have to work for it.
Powerfully positive experiences are wonderful, and even necessary for an
ongoing Torah-experience, and Shabbos, Yom Tovim, and Torah itself provide
this. But we all have days when there's nothing there to feel ... when we
feel we just want to walk in "another direction," G-d forbid. Some have.
Others have used their minds to re-educate their emotions to once again
feel what seemed lost.
Perhaps this is why we are confronted with Parashas Mishpatim so soon after
Parashas Yisro, as if to say: Good, I hope you enjoyed the experience; you
were meant to. However, it's back to business to build the correct
intellectual approach to Torah, which means, first and foremost,
intellectually integrating the Egyptian experience, so that you never grow
insensitive to the downtrodden and those people under your authority. For
society to function properly, it has to have the proper intellectual
infrastructure; in the words of one author, "Societies rise and fall on
When two men fight, and one hits the other with a stone or with a fist; if
the victim does not die, but is bedridden, and then gets up and can walk
with his own strength, then the one who hit him will be acquitted. Still,
he must pay for the loss of work, and must provide for his complete cure
(ra-po y'rapaih). (Shemos 21:18)
It is a given in Western society for doctors to exist and try to heal
people. However, in a Torah society, it is not so obvious, as the Talmud
The Bais Medrash of Rebi Yishmael taught: "... provide for his complete
cure (ra-po y'rapaih)"; from here we learn the source that a doctor has
permission to heal. (Brochos 60a)
We needed a source for the obvious? The answer is yes, because, it is not
so obvious that a Jew turns to a doctor for his cure (in fact, there are
still Torah-observant Jews to this very day who, if they go to a medical
doctor at all, it is only in dire circumstances). Why? Because going to a
doctor flies in the face of another concept that is mentioned in bentching
(blessing after eating bread) and other places as well:
G-d, our G-d, please make us not require the gifts of human hands ...
In other words, from a Torah-perspective, a doctor is an intermediary. We
Jews prefer to receive our blessing directly from G-d Himself, very much
the same way that the dove told G-d:
"Better is it for me to receive bitter food from Your hand than sweet food
from the hand of man" (Tanchuma, Noach).
Bitter food, instead of sweet food? What's the big deal? It's not as if the
Torah forbade us to go to a doctor, or to receive gifts from other human
beings? On the contrary, the Torah commands us to take care of our health,
and when we're at a loss to do so, that translates into visiting our
trusted physicians. Failure to do so, especially at the risk of one's
health, can be a transgression of the Torah itself!
Let me try to explain this dual perspective based upon two stories I once
heard from Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern, shlita, the Rosh HaYeshivah of
Kamenitz Yeshiva here in Jerusalem, about the Steipler HaGaon, zt"l, about
whom many stories are told involving miracles he seemed to have caused.
The first story was about a man who had come to the Steipler Rav for a
blessing to recover from a serious illness. He had told the Steipler that
he had been taking treatment from the doctors, and that they had diagnosed
a serious condition, which they weren't sure they could treat. "Could the
Steipler please pray on my behalf to do what the doctors can not do?" The
Steipler answered the man, "I will pray for you, but, if you are to be
cured, it will be through the doctors." The man left with less confidence
in his complete recovery than he had hoped to.
Another man, this time a young Rosh HaYeshivah, had also come to the
Steipler for his advice and blessing. His wife had been diagnosed with
cancer, and the doctors were pressing her to begin chemo-treatment
immediately. The man weeped like a child as he begged the Steipler to help
him avoid having to go the conventional route to treat his wife's illness.
The Steipler, who knew of the rabbi and his trust in G-d, told him, "Go
home, and do not worry. Do not go for treatment, because it will be
unnecessary." The man took the Steipler for his word and trusted his advice
A year later, the woman had become pregnant and was at the hospital for a
routine check-up. While there, she happened to see the doctor who had
diagnosed her illness the previous year and who had prescribed treatment.
"Where have you been?" he said with concern. "We've been trying to reach
you ... You were supposed to have started treatment a year ago! You may
have cost yourself the recovery from a deathly illness."
The woman smiled and said, "Actually, I feel fine."
"Well, at least let me examine the extent of the illness!" he pleaded.
The woman didn't want to, but to get the doctor off her case, she relented
in the end to an examination. To the doctor's utter surprise, there
remained not one trace of the cancer he had found the previous year! Not
only had the cancer gone into remission, it had disappeared altogether! The
Steipler Rav had been right!
Clearly the woman and her family had witnessed an incredible miracle, as
had many who had come to the Rav for his blessing. But what about the man
who had come to the Steipler for a blessing, but met instead with
Rav Moshe Aharon Stern explained:
"When the Steipler saw that the man had put his trust in the doctors for
his cure, he knew he was powerless to pray for any obvious miracle [since,
as the book "Duties of the Heart" warns: in whomever a person places his
trust, it is in those hands that G-d leaves the person]. However, with the
young Rosh HaYeshivah, he saw a man who wanted to rise above such
dependency, and took his wife's illness as an opportunity to increase his
trust and faith in G-d. For such a man, the Steipler knew, miracles can
happen in an obvious way."
Thus, though the Torah grants the doctor permission to act as an
intermediary between Himself and the infirmed, nevertheless, it is a higher
level to trust in G-d to the extent that we need no doctor but Him. For, as
the Torah states:
It was there that [G-d] taught them a decree and a law, and there He tested
them. He said, "If you obey G-d, your G-d, and do what is upright in His
eyes, carefully heeding all His commandments and keeping all His decrees,
then I will not cause you to suffer any of the sicknesses that I brought on
Egypt. I am G-d who heals you (alternatively: your doctor)." (Shemos 15:25)
For many, such trust in G-d may be a new concept. For others, they may
already know about this, and balk at the thought of relying upon G-d to
such an extent. For a small number of "doves," this trust-relationship with
G-d may be the only way to go. However, for all of us, it certainly
something to think about, a level to strive for, and something to keep in
mind the next time we run to our physician's for their help.
It might be easy for many a reader to gloss over this parsha to return back
to the narrative as soon as possible, rather than get bogged down in many
of the technical details of Jewish law (many of which cannot be implemented
However, as the Arizal points out (Sha'arei HaPesukim, Parashas Mishpatim),
there is narrative even in such technicalities, such as this law concerning
the Jewish servant:
If he was unmarried when he entered service, he shall leave by himself.
Technically, this mitzvah means that if a Jewish male was sold into slavery
(either by the courts to help him pay for what he stole but could not
repay, or, voluntarily to earn his keep), and he was single at the time,
then, when his tenure is up, he leaves single. However, says the Arizal, if
you take the first letter of each of the relevant words:
Im ... b'gapo ... yavoh ... b'gapo ...
... You get the letters, aleph, bais, yud, bais, which can be ordered to
spell the word "Aviv," which means spring, an allusion to the fact that the
Jewish people left Egyptian slavery in the spring (Pesach-time). This is a
confirmation of what we said above, that the laws of slavery are taught
early after the giving of Torah specifically while the memory of Egyptian
slavery was still fresh in our minds.
Another example of this is the following:
If one hits another person (ish) and he dies, [then the murderer] must be
put to death. (Shemos 21:12)
This verse is quite straightforward, legalizing the death-penalty for the
person who premeditatively commits manslaughter. However, according to the
Arizal, this verse also alludes to the very first act of murder of Hevel
(Abel) at the hand of his brother Kayin (Cain).
How? Because the word "ish" is a word that is used in reference to Moshe in
the Torah, and Moshe was the reincarnation of Hevel. On the other hand,
Kayin reincarnated into the Egyptian that Moshe killed while in Egypt,
after which he buried him in the earth (just as the earth had "swallowed"
up the blood of Hevel), and then later into Korach, who challenged Moshe in
the desert, the punishment for which Korach (Kayin) was swallowed up by the
earth! How's that for measure-for-measure?!
According to the Arizal, this is why the verse ends with the doubling of
the word for "to be killed" (mos yu-mos)-to allude to the two times that
Kayin paid for his murder of his brother, once as the Egyptian, and the
second time when Korach was swallowed up by the earth.
Hence, nothing is so technical in the Torah that it doesn't have a story to
According to the Pri Tzaddik, this parsha is called "Mishpatim" (Judgments)
because, in the Zohar, the word "mishpat" implies mercy. However, one could
argue (and rightly so), "Is this not an oxymoron?" After all, judgment
implies strict justice, whereas mercy speaks of ignoring the demands of
justice and forgiving the offender in spite of the law.
At least that's what every child in trouble has thought out loud when he
yells to his about-to-punish parent, "Mercy! Mercy! Mercy!"
Of course, the parents answers the child, "This is going to hurt me more
than it will hurt you!" which certainly confuses the child, who thinks to
himself, "Someone has the wrong definition of mercy here ... and I'm about
to pay for it!"
However, what the Pri Tzaddik is alluding to is the idea that there is no
greater mercy than justice. After all, though our bodies dream of a
painless society, one in which "you can have your cake and eat it to," our
souls long for the World-to-Come, and eventual closeness to G-d. But let us
not forget that the world of the body is destined to last 6,000 years; the
world of the soul will last forever!
If so, what need is there for mercy that does nothing to correct the acts
of the transgressor, and allows children to physically grow while remaining
spiritually stunted? What good is mercy that allows a person to improperly
indulge in This World, while at the same time denying him eternity with G-d?
This is why Parashas Mishpatim is the last of the parshios that make up the
six-week period of Shov'vim (see Parashas Bo), which we said was a time for
tshuva (repentance) from love, as opposed to because of a fear of
punishment. By "giving it to us straight," these judgments are the biggest
act of mercy that G-d could do for us, since they provide us with the key
to self-fulfillment, spiritual maturity, and G-d willing, our ticket to the
Taking all of this to heart could do wonders to improve the spiritual and
physical quality of one's life, not mention of the present security threat
facing the Jewish people.