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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Parshat Mishpatim – so many mitzvot, so much to learn

Posted by rabbiart on February 11, 2010

As we move into Sedrah Mishpatim with its compendium of mitzvot we go from the sublime not to the ridiculous but to the practical mitzvot of everyday life. Some of the mitzvot about which we learn reflect customs and practices which we no longer observe, like proper treatment of indentured servants. Others reflect the vision of a society when Jewish courts are both the criminal and civil legal system. These are mitzvot which are perhaps the quote/unquote modern Jew may not relate to. But some of the mitzvot resonate with our lives today, and are important to the conditions of life in the secular year of 2010.We live now, especially in the U.S. in time when fear and loathing (sorry Hunter Thompson) seem to stalk the land as if they were living, breathing entities. It as if the entire world has been divided into warring camps, where those who are not known to us as friends can only be seen as enemies. Each time we go to the airport there are more procedures, more technology that is supposed to keep us safe, but only increases are sense of insecurity.

As I studied the sedrah this week two verses in particular spoke to me.  My attention was drawn to them last Shabbat by the Bat Mitzvah drosh of one Emma Zamutt that we attended last week. (Minchah Bat/Bar Mitzvah shared with her brother Matt, so they of course read and taught the upcoming parshah).  The verses are Shmot 23:4-5 which address a portion of our behavior toward “our enemy” and a person who hates us (and by implication, whom we hate).  The verses read

כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ, אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ–תֹּעֶה: הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ, לוֹ.
ה כִּי-תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ, רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ, וְחָדַלְתָּ, מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ–עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב, עִמּוֹ.

If you come upon your enemy’s bull or his stray donkey, you shall surely return it to him. if you see the donkey of the one who hates you lying under its burden would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him.

According to Rambam as explicated by Sefer HaHinuch these verses form the basis for the mitzvah of “unloading another person’s burden”. Relying on several passages from the Talmud Bavli, the Sefer gives this mitzvah a wide field of operation. He begins by inquiring into why we would have an enemy or the emotion of hatred, and toward whom we might adopt this attitude.

The narrow interpretation and example is that one Jew sees another Jew committing a transgression when the witness is alone. We know from the halachah that two witnesses are required to establish guilt, especially in a capital case. So when there is only a single witness, that witness might develop a hatred because he knows that the transgressing party will suffer no consequences. As he explicates various instances, he arrives at the conclusion that the laws of this mitzvah extend to cases where non-Jews are involved, either as owners of the animal or owners of the load it is carrying. We can easily imagine modern analogues of this situation involving commercial or private vehicles carrying goods, and from there it is an easy step to other, broader contexts.

At first blush this commandment would appear to simply instruct us to put our emotions and feelings aside and “do the right thing” (thanks for the movie, Spike Jones). Sefer HaHinuch goes on to say (in translation) “at the root of the precept lies the purpose to teach our spirit the quality of compassion, which is a noble trait of character.

This is a mitzvah that is in effect in every place at every time for both men and women; in other words, it applies universally. To violate this mitzvah it to disobey precept and to display the attribute of cruelty. It occurs to me that this mitzvah might be understood even more powerfully, and as a mean to bringing about a transformation of not just behavior but attitude. If we can teach ourselves to regularly help “our enemy”, how long can it be before we find ourselves seeing our enemy not as “other” but as a creature of HaShem like ourselves, and from there it becomes possible to discard the notion of ‘enemy’, recognize the humanity we all share, and move in the direction of understanding and friendship. Would that it become so.bimherah b’yamenu, speedily and in our day.

Shabbat Shalom

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