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Parshas Mishpatim

Beyond the Letter of the Law

There is a concept in Jewish law and life that is called "lifnim meshurat hadin" - to enter an area beyond the letter of the law. In old English Common Law, there was a parallel legal system to the English courts known as "equity." It was meant to correct the sometimes-unavoidable moral injustices that could be caused by the strict application and narrow construction of the rules of traditional law and justice. In the Torah reading of Mishpatim we are told the laws and the legal system of Israel. But in 'Parshat Yitro' we were first commanded to do "observe the laws and the teachings (of the Torah) and to be taught the path upon which to walk and the behavior that they should follow." The Midrash states that the phrase "the behavior that they should follow" refers to this concept of "lifnim meshurat hadin" - doing more than what one may be held strictly, legally, liable to do. Even though, at first glance, this concept appears to be one of super-righteousness, the Talmud defines this concept as one of legal and societal necessity and not solely one of piety and saintliness.

The Talmud relates to us an instance when a well-known rabbi and scholar hired day laborers to move barrels for him. The workers were apparently not up to the task, for many of the barrels fell from their hands and shattered in the process of being moved from one place to another. The rabbi was justly disturbed by this turn of events and in order to protect himself in his claim for monetary damages against the workers, he confiscated their coats and cloaks. The workers objected to this seizure of their personal property and they, together with the rabbi/employer, appeared before the rabbinic judge of the town to have the matter adjudicated. The judge ordered the employer to return the seized clothing to the laborers. The rabbi/employer asked the judge, "Is that the law?" The judge replied, "Yes, that is the law!" The workers, heartened by this initial victory, then asked the judge to order the rabbi/employer to pay them their wages - to pay them for their time spent during the day in his employ. The judge did as they requested and ordered the employer to pay them the wage agreed upon. The rabbi/employer complained again, "Is that the law?" The judge reiterated his decision and said firmly, "Yes, that is the law. It is the law of "lifnim meshurat hadin" - of doing what is moral, even if the technicalities of the law do not require it."

The commentators to the Talmud explain that the employer was held to the standard of "lifnim meshurat hadin" being that he was a well-known Torah scholar and public figure. As far as he was concerned, "lifnim meshurat hadin" had become the actual din, the law itself!

There is another concept in Torah, enunciated by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman - Ramban - of sanctifying one's self by refraining from acts which are legally permissible to one but do not engender a sense of holiness and Godly service. Thus, there is room to legitimately follow a higher and stricter sense of kashrut than the basic one that renders the food kosher. One can refrain from physical pleasures that the Torah allows, if one feels that those pleasures will interfere with the quest for greater spiritual growth and that they will weaken eventual adherence to Torah discipline. If this concept of self-sanctification is true, as it is, in the realm of the observance of commandments and personal behavior, the concept of "lifnim meshurat hadin" is its natural companion in the realm of business and inter-personal relationships. It is the means of self-sanctification in the mundane and everyday world of commerce, labor, traffic and shopping. The Rabbis of the Talmud warned us that society could not long exist and prosper in an atmosphere where everyone insists on one's rights to the letter of the law. Courtesy, sensitivity to the feelings and needs of others, the ability to be non-judgmental about others and their apparent behavior, are all aspects of this great concept of "lifnim meshurat hadin."

This is especially relevant to our current Jewish world (and to the general world that we live in as well) where there is an acute shortage of this necessary Torah attitude. In our democratic societies, where we pride ourselves on the strength of the rule of law, we would be wise to realize that there always is a higher rule of law that is demanded of us. It is only that higher rule of law - "lifnim meshurat hadin" - that guarantees the social harmony of society and allows for a full vision of the peaceful human society that the Torah envisions for humankind.

Parshas Shekalim

The Talmud tells us that in Temple times the collection of the half-shekel "tax" for the support of the Temple services began with the entrance of the month of Adar. Therefore, this coming Shabat is called Shabat Shekalim in remembrance of that fact of ancient Jewish history. The half-shekel was to be assessed "b'shekel hakodesh," by the standard of the holy shekel. The Talmud describes to us in great detail the actual amount of silver required in coin to meet the standard value of the holy shekel. But the Talmud indirectly reminds us that part of the task of Judaism and therefore of necessity of its adherents, the Jews, is to somehow invest a sense of holiness into the shekel - into otherwise grubby money. According to Midrash, Moshe was shown a holy shekel of fire on Sinai. The Jewish understanding of the symbolism of fire has always been that fire is ambivalent - it can burn and destroy or it can light and warm. So too with money. Money can accomplish great good and it also is able to bring about great evil. It can build hospitals and schools and help the needy or it can wreck personal character and corrupt society, government and industry. It finances war and causes violence and cultivates crime and yet it can just as well succor the widow and orphan and save the helpless from disaster. Thus the idea of "shekel hakodesh" exists in our world as strongly as it did in the times of the Temples in Jerusalem. To take the ordinary shekel and transform it into the "shekel hakodesh" is the mission of Torah and Israel.

There is an entire section of Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law) devoted to money and the task of transforming it into the "shekel hakodesh." There are many volumes of Talmud devoted to this issue as well. Judaism sets a minimum standard of human behavior regarding monetary matters that is recorded in these legal tomes. But it also sets a standard of moral behavior that though legally unenforceable is nevertheless necessary in order to attempt to create a more just society - in short, in order to raise money to the level of "shekel hakodesh." This moral standard regarding money is called "lifnim meshurat hadin" - above the minimum face of the law itself. The Talmud saw that one of the spiritual causes of the destruction of the Temples was the lack of willingness to behave "lifnim meshurat hadin." People insisted on their legal rights and were not willing to accommodate others even when morally obligated to do so. A society that does not allow for a moral code of law to accompany the strictly legal code of law eventually turns corrupt and rotten and dooms itself to destruction. The Talmud is replete with examples of "lifnim meshurat hadin" in monetary matters. Money is a great test in life. The rabbis of the Talmud held monetary probity in such high and necessary esteem that groups of people (such as shepherds, for example, who usually grazed their herds on other people's property) who had bad reputations as far as money was concerned were held to be unacceptable as witnesses in Jewish courts of law. A great rabbi once told me that it is far easier to have glatt kosher meat on one's plate than to have glatt kosher money in one's pocket. Sadly, he was right in that assessment. Shabat Shkalim comes to remind us about glatt kosher money.

Judaism has always stressed the importance of imparting knowledge to its children. But it has stressed even more the teaching of values. In current world society, we speak of the value of money in purely economic and social terms. But there is a value of money in spiritual and holy terms as well. And it is that value of money - the "shekel hakodesh" value - that needs to be addressed in the education of our children and in our own personal and national life. Throughout Jewish history, movements arose to help cleanse the money of the House of Israel from immorality and cupidity. The Mussar movement that originated in Jewish Lithuania in the nineteenth century did wonders in developing a "shekel hakodesh" attitude amongst its adherents. The influence of the Mussar movement was widely felt throughout Jewish society. To a certain extent, even the secular Jewish labor organizations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also were trying to achieve a "shekel hakodesh" attitude and society, being still based upon the Torah rules and attitudes regarding money that were part of the Jewish psyche and soul over the ages. Improving our attitude towards money is a vital step in rebuilding ourselves spiritually and morally and refocusing our attention towards creating a more just society.

Shabat Shalom.
Rabbi Berel Wein


Text Copyright © 2004 Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org.


 






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