February 19, 1998
Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus21:1-24:18)
Deeply ingrained ideas die hard. This week'sparasha,however, helps to ring the death knell for one such idea. Many of ushave been trained to believe that the Torah's commandments can bebroken down into two basic categories. These re: the mitzvot we do for God and themitzvot we do for the benefit of fellow human beings. The kosherlaws, for example, would belong to the former category, and the lawsregarding the returning of lost items, for example, would belong tothe latter. This classification system may be neat and clean, but itis also inaccurate and it distorts one of Judaism's most importantmessages.Evidence that the system is inaccurate permeatesthis week's portion. Consider, for instance, this week's presentationof Shabbat. Although Shabbat is thought to be a classic example ofmitzvah that we do for God, you would never get that idea bylistening to the Torah reading this week. Rather, you would hear,"...on the seventh day, you shall rest so that your ox and donkey mayhave rest, and so that the son of the handmaid and the stranger maybe refreshed." Shabbat is here a labor law, ensuring proper treatmentof those who work for us, rather than the more familiar "remember thecreation" law that was presented in the Ten Commandments.
Similarly, the explanation given this week for notharvesting crop in the Sabbatical year (shmita) is not the morefamiliar "it is a Sabbatical year unto the Lord"; rather, it is "sothat the poor of thy people may eat [it]." Shmita has an unmistakablesocial-welfare component to it.
Conversely, many mitzvot that we generally assumewe are doing for the benefit of fellow human beings, are presented inthe Torah as mitzvot we do for God. We are directed, for example, touse only honest weights and measures. To be certain, part of theconcern is to prevent others from being cheated. But equallyimportant (see Leviticus 19:36) is the desecration of God's name,which would result from one of His children behaving in a crookedmanner. Similarly, the commandment that epitomizes Judaism'sinterpersonal ethic -- "You should love your neighbor as yourself" --is explained by the late Nehama Leibowitz as being the command torecognize that God created all people, and, therefore, they deserveto be treated accordingly. Of course, this mitzvah benefits thepeople around us, and human society at large. But it is alsoinextricably intertwined with our relationship with, and beliefsabout, God.
The message of all this, I believe, is clear: TheTorah's mitzvot defy the neat categories of "for people" and "forGod." Performance of a "for God" mitzvah, such as eating matzo orobserving Shabbat or attending prayer services, that does not have a"for people" component to it is an incomplete performance. There isalways a way to be sure that the mitzvah we are engaged in will bringbenefit to the people around us. Similarly, any performance of a "forpeople" mitzvah that does not animate our feelings for God, that doesnot reinforce and strengthen our commitment to our covenant with God,is also an incomplete mitzvah. In extending a hand to people, weshould feel ourselves to simultaneously be taking a step towardGod.
This insight about the nature of mitzvot, and thenature of God's will for us, has important implications forcontemporary Jewish life. It is not valid to shut oneself into "thefour cubits of the study hall" and be unconcerned with the materialand spiritual welfare of the larger community -- Jewish as well asnon-Jewish. There is no such concept as mitzvot "for Godonly."
The same can be said concerning behaving ethicallysolely for the sake of behaving ethically. Surely, there is greatmerit to it. But it cannot be equated with the performance ofmitzvah. The moments of our greatest moral accomplishment, themoments of our most compassionate embrace of less fortunate humanbeings, need also to be moments that we sense God's satisfaction withus.
The concept of mitzvah is enjoying a well-deservedappreciation in these days of general spiritual striving. This week'sTorah reading gives us an even deeper appreciation of its complexityand wonder.Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'naiDavid-Judea in Los Angeles.
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