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Parshas Mishpatim

Keeping the Bar Raised

Six days you will do your work, and on the seventh day you will rest, as well as your ox. Your donkey will rest, the son of your maidservant, and the stranger, so that they may be refreshed. (Shemos 23:12)

Of all the parshios to choose to speak about the mitzvah of Shabbos, this is probably the least likely. After all, the mitzvah of Shabbos comes up in other parshios less packed with mitzvos and ideas. Why overlook a one-time opportunity to speak about those mitzvos and choose to speak one that comes up elsewhere?

True, there are many and various mitzvos in this week’s parshah, many of which seem unrelated. Indeed, the only thread to the parshah seems to be the general idea of mishpatim, or laws. But that is not really true. There is another thread, a deeper one, and it is Shabbos, and that is why this parshah, specifically, is the one in which to talk about Shabbos.

When people think about Shabbos, and what it, and all of its laws, are supposed to do for man, they think about how it reminds man of Who runs the world, so that he can maintain an appreciation of the gift of life and the gifts that come in life. That is 100 percent true, but not 100 percent complete.

The corollary, or at least, one of the main results of recognizing God as your Master, and the One to Whom you owe everything, should be the way you treat the world, and everyone in it. Relationships between people are a function of one’s relationship with God, as evident over the ages.

One such example of this is the Torah’s explanation of the role God plays in a marriage. The Hebrew word for man and woman is Ish and Ishah respectively. Both words contain the letters Aleph and Shin, which spell the word fire, but only one contains a Yud and only one contains a Heh, when combined, spells a Name of God. Hence, if they are removed from ish and ishah, all that remains is aish, which means fire, indicating that a Godless marriage will consume itself (Kiddushin).

“But,” a person will argue, “there are many marriages out there working just fine, and the couples are not that religious at all, and often not at all. How does that fit with what the Talmud says?”

Because, being consumed doesn’t necessarily mean that the couple will fight and, perhaps, get a divorce. There are other ways to consume a marriage, some worse than others, and some less obvious than others. From a secular point of view, the marriage may work fine. But, from the Creator’s point of view, which is the only one that counts, it may lack the most important components of all.

Another example of this idea is the 49 levels of spiritual impurity that the Jewish people supposedly descended to before God put the breaks on their spiritual descent in Egypt, while there was still something to redeem. What were they? What did Egyptian society look like on such a low spiritual level? Completely immodest and promiscuous?

If yes, then how did Yosef even live there for one day, let alone work with such people every day? How could Ya’akov escape famine in Canaan by going down to Egypt, especially with his entire family, if they couldn’t even walk the streets because Egypt was so sexually uninhibited?

Exactly. That is proof that such immodesty and promiscuity are only symptoms of a society that has reached the 49th level of spiritual impurity, but not the actual expression of it. In fact, though there is no question that illicit sexual relationships were the norm in Egypt, still it was a society that could be modest enough for the likes of Yosef and his family, at least in public.

To appreciate what it means to live on the 49th level of impurity, you have to first understand what impurity is, from a Torah perspective. The answer is quite surprising, and far more relevant, and logical, than most might think.

From a Torah perspective, what is the ultimate source of tuma, or spiritual impurity? It is a dead body, and a dead body is certainly not promiscuous. So, then, what makes a body such a great source of spiritual impurity? It is its inability to have an experience of God, something the soul is here to make happen.

In other words, anything that limits, in any way, the body’s experience of God in this world is a source of spiritual impurity, another name for which is Klipos, or “Peels,” since they act as a barrier between man and God. Hence, a place on the 49th level of impurity is one that does everything it can to push God out of the picture.

As mentioned many times before, the name Mitzrayim is composed of two sections, meitzer, which means “boundary,” and yum, which has a gematria of 50, to allude to the Fifty Gates of Understanding, which allow us to maximize our experience of God. Hence, Mitzrayim can be any place throughout the world, regardless of geographical location, that constricts knowledge of God, and the experience of His Presence in every day life.

This is why Yosef could live and work in such a place, because people could have been on the 49th level of spiritual impurity, and still dressed relatively modest for him. It happens all the time in Western society, where God is constantly being pushed out of the picture, but people can still dress appropriately to go to work. Just because someone is a sworn atheist does not mean that he does not dress decently, at least in public.

Behind closed doors may be another story, since once God is no longer a factor in people’s lives, then promiscuity is certainly to follow, evident by the way the wife of Potiphar was prepared to seduce Yosef. Indeed, the Talmud states that the only reason why the Jewish people were involved in idol worship, which they knew really had no power, was to permit illicit relationships.

Hence, the fact that the Yud and Heh are non-existence in a couple’s relationship does not mean that they will become outcasts from society. To the public eye, they can seem perfectly normal by society’s standards. The question is, does their relationship amount to anything meaningful, anything eternally meaningful?

It is the Yud and the Heh in a marriage that allows a person to serve a marriage, rather than have the marriage serve him or her. It makes people selfless, and turns the marriage into a vehicle to allow each other to become closer to God. When this happens, then a marriage ascends to a much higher plane, and becomes more eternal.

This is not only true of marriage, but of all relationships, and life in general. When a person allows God to be up front in his life, meaning that he is always concerned what God thinks about what he is doing, then he becomes what we call a real mentch. He becomes sensitive to the needs of others, and how others need him. He is careful regarding the well-being of others, and their property.

But life constantly draws the Yud-Heh out of our lives. As Rashi points out, that is what Amalek does best (Shemos 17:16), and the net result is Jews who have become desensitized to what counts most in life, and who have become less respectful of other people. Nothing makes Amalek smile more than watching a “Me Generation” rise to power.

Shabbos is a major part of the antidote. Shabbos puts the Yud and the Heh back into our lives, so that we can have meaningful relationships, and treat one another with respect, and so that all the laws of protecting others and their property can become superfluous. When people keep Shabbos properly, they become free of the pitfalls created by the yetzer hara. The Talmud, in fact, says exactly this:

Had the Jewish people kept the first Shabbos, no nation could have had any power over them, as its says, “And it was on the seventh day that the people went out to collect …” (Shemos 16:22). What is written afterwards, “And Amalek came …” (Shabbos 118b)

The Talmud is making a connection between the profaning of Shabbos and the attack by Amalek that followed shortly after. However, as Rashi points out, the attack by Amalek was the result of a different event:

Moshe did so in the eyes of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Merivah, because Israel argued there, and because they tested God by asking, “Is God with us or not?” Amalek came and attacked Israel in Refidim. (Shemos 17:6-8)

The Torah places this section immediately after this verse (when they said, “Is G-d among us or not?”) to imply, “I am always among you and ready at hand for everything you need, and yet you say, ‘Is God among us or not?’ By your lives, that dog shall come and bite you, and you will cry for Me and then you will know where I am!” It is like a man who carried his son on his shoulders and went on a journey. The son saw an article and said, “Father, pick up that thing and give it to me.” He gave it to him, and so a second time and also a third time. Yet, when they met a certain man along the journey, the son asked him, “Have you seen my father anywhere?” Therefore, the father said to him, “You do not know where I am?” At which point he put him down and a dog came and bit him. (Rashi, Shemos 17:8)

Of course, after some thinking, it is clear that they are really one and the same reason. Shabbos is the answer to the question, “Is God amongst us or not?” To ask the question is evidence that the Yud-Heh is missing from the person’s relationship with God. Amalek attacking was, is, the fire that consumes the person, or people who have such a lack of clarity, or doubt, the gematria of Amalek.

I know such people, or of such people. Some of them are millionaires, and live a great life, materially. They live in expensive houses, drive fancy cars, and travel at will. They never have to think twice about anything they buy, and others look upon them with envy. What else could they ask for?

But God is not in their lives. They neither know Torah or have a desire to learn it. They might fast on Yom Kippur and attend synagogue on the High Holidays, but they’d rather not, and do so only because that is what they have been trained to do. They’re not even sure that God exists, and they do not believe for a moment that He gave the Torah at Sinai, so why should they be happy about going to shul for several hours even just twice a year?

They won’t even talk about God or Torah, some of them. They certainly won’t allow themselves to be engaged in a conversation that claims the veracity of Torah, feigning a lack of interest when in fact what they feel is fear, fear that the Torah might indeed be true, and therefore, that they are obligated to change their lives. They act as if ignoring the possibility of Torah being true makes it untrue, and them, unobligated.

It’s against all logic. There is too much at stake to be wrong about this one. All the money in the world, and all the pleasure that one might possibly be able to enjoy even over many lifetimes could never justify going to Gihenom. It’s a system, and it can’t be beaten.

“But Your Honors,” an atheist or agnostic might imagine saying in his defense on his final day of judgment before the Heavenly Tribunal, “I didn’t know better. I didn’t know the real truth, and was confused. All that I did but shouldn’t have, and all that I didn’t do but should have, was because of my doubt in the existence of God, and the validity of Torah from Sinai. Had I known better ...”

And that’s where they’ll cut the person off. “Had you known better?” they’ll ask, perhaps mockingly. “Had you known better? How could you not have? God kept sending you all kinds of signs and people to open your heart and mind, and you rejected them all. You scoffed at them, choosing to live a Godless life instead, creating and maintaining your doubt as a cover for your immoral lifestyle. But, it was a nice try anyhow.”

Lacking the Yud-Heh of Shabbos in life does not mean that a person will not be a nice person. It does not mean that he or she won’t be charitable, kind to others. It does not mean that they won’t be presentable, or a pleasure to be around. It often does, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

This is because these are all components of being human. To be human is to automatically do these things. To be a believer in Torah, though, means that someone is nice because it is the Godly thing to do. Being Torah-observant means giving charity because it is tzeddakah, a righteous and Godly act. It means being presentable, not because it makes you, personally, more attractive, but because you represent God, and want Him to look more attractive, so-to-speak.

As a Torah-Jew, if you’re a pleasure to be around, it is because of how you help others to find meaning in their lives, not because it makes you popular, or feel good to be liked. You are not just a mentsch, but a Godly mentsch, a light unto people for all the right reasons.

What is the ultimate difference between the two? The level of the bar. As society has proven many times before, societal standards quickly dissolve when crises threaten the standard of living of its members. In such situations, people tend to act very unGodly, and treat one another even worse than animals treat each other.

On the other hand, to keep Shabbos is to maintain a strong hold on one’s connection to the Yud-Heh in their own lives, and to keep the bar raised on one’s level of behavior. On such a level, laws that protect one person from the damage of another become superfluous, since being respectful of others becomes as natural as breathing itself.


Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.


 






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