פרשת משפטים | PDF
THE MOST SPECTACULAR EVENT IN OUR HISTORY
The greatest event in the history of our nation, the grandest spectacle that we would ever witness, was Matan Torah. We stood at Har Sinai and we saw what nobody before us, and after us, ever saw. הנהיה כדבר הגדול הזה או הנשמע כמהו השמע עם קול אלוקים מדבר מתוך האש כאשר שמעת אתה ויחי – “Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything like it been heard?! Has a people ever heard the Voice of Hashem speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard, and survived?!” (D’varim 4:32). Even Avraham Avinu wasn’t zocheh to such a spectacle. It was so amazing, an experience so sensational, that נפשי יצאה בדברו – “Our souls left our bodies when we heard His word” (Shir Hashirim 5:6). And the Gemara says (Shabbos 88) that they all fell down dead. And we’ll say here that they all fell down in a faint. They fainted in fright and they had to be revived.
When they heard that tremendous Voice, the Voice of Hashem, it was an experience of the greatest love and fear that our nation would ever experience. One trembles in excitement when he contemplates what an experience it must have been. Thereafter, forever and ever, the memory of that great day is etched into our minds and it will always be the focus of our nation’s yearning. ישקיני מנשיקות פיהו – “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth,” we say to Hashem (Shir Hashirim 1:2). The deepest yearning of the Jewish nation is for a second experience of that kind. We say והוא ישמיענו שנית – “He should let us hear [His voice] a second time.” Our greatest desire is to experience that great moment when when we heard the words of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, “I am Hashem your G-d.”
WE’RE READY FOR EVERYTHING
At the conclusion of this great experience, the people were on a very high level of enthusiasm. We may be certain that the Am Yisroel felt the greatest emotions of love and utmost dedication, and tears of excitement flowed from their eyes. Their faces were flushed with fiery enthusiasm. Their minds were attuned and prepared for the greatest of ideals, and they expected from now on to hear who knows what kind of instruction in walking the path towards Hashem! The greatest of ideals and attitudes, the deepest of Torah secrets and the mysteries of our purpose in life. That’s what they were expecting. After all, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, the Master of the Universe, had just came down on Har Sinai to rendezvous with His chosen people and to prepare them for their historic future as the one nation that would serve Him until the end of all history. And the Am Yisroel was on such a high, they were ready to accept it all. נעשה ונשמע – “We want to do everything! Just let us know what is the path that we must trod on to delight in your Presence forever and ever, and we’ll run in haste down that road.”
THE BIG LETDOWN
And what follows? What follows Matan Torah?! A remarkable thing. ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם – “And these are the statutes that you, Moshe, should place before them” (Shemos 21:1). Laws of dealing with your fellow man, slaves and maidservants. The seemingly dry details of your relationship to your fellow man’s property and self, the various payments for bodily injury, and various laws of torts and contractual agreements. Parshas Mishpatim is famous as the source of dinei mamanos and nezikin.
But it’s a question. What’s Mishpatim doing over here? And it’s a good question. These are not the high ideals that we were waiting for! Are these petty laws what we accepted the Torah for? We had just heard the Voice of Hashem! The booming thunder, the bolts of lightning and the smoking mountain! Seeing the Presence of Hashem! And all just to hear these mundane monetary laws?! It’s a remarkable fact that this was their introduction to their relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. The details, the minutiae, the petty claims and counterclaims of a man and his fellow were the first things that they heard from Hashem after the great event of Matan Torah – at the moment when their hearts were open to everything, ready to hear about the most sublime ideas.
Now, Torah certainly opens up a vista of shleimus, of perfection, that is dependent on great ideals and sublime attitudes. Absolutely! It’s a ladder that is ראשו מגיע השמימה, up to the heavens. Of course it is. But Hakodosh Boruch Hu is teaching us how to get there! And the very first step that is expected of you is to learn about how not to transgress nezikin. What comes afterwards is certainly a good thing, but the first rung is nezikin. The laws in Mishpatim, the concept of being careful and diligent with the well being of others and with their properties is the first rung of perfection. And these mishpatim are important enough of a foundation for all of the great things that man is capable of, that Hashem chose to fill the enthusiastic and wide-open hearts of the our nation only with these laws.
THE IDEALIST IS LOOKING FOR IDEALS
Let’s say a ba’al teshuva comes into yeshiva for the first time. He made the big jump. And so, he’d like to hear ideas and ideals; he’d like to be taught noble aspirations and life-altering attitudes and perspectives. And instead, he’s treated to a course in contracts and torts. He’s looking to see what this Jewish religion is all about, and he’s being taught laws about what happens if one’s animal trespasses into his fellow man’s field and eats some of the grain. Or if you leave your wine barrel in the public path, and someone’s camel falls over the barrel.And it’s endless; it goes on and on. Sometimes there’s a little oasis of a few lines of agadata by which you can refresh your neshama. A ba’al teshuva, or an idealist loves that. And he’s waiting for it. Sometimes it seems to him that all the rest of it, is unnecessary. If only we could skip over all of this, and just spend our time on the noble ideas. That’s what he’s thinking.
But you find in the Gemara that agadata is only one seventh of the Gemara. Six seventh is taken up by practical questions, technicalities, details just how much do you have to pay if your cat walks into my garden and eats my roses. Do you have to pay a full damage or a half damage? Will you pay with money or in roses? Do you evaluate each rose individually or as bunch? And it takes up a lot of space. It boggles the mind how much time and space is devoted to details and sub details – minutiae of damages. Bava Kama, Bava Metziah, Bava Basra! Three big mesichtas! And young people spend their lives in it. Years go by. They could have learned middos tovos in that time. They could have learned Mesillas Yesharim or Chovos Halevavos in that time. We lose out on so many great things because of the time spent in the three Bavas. And it’s not merely that one yeshiva has this system. It’s the system of the Jewish people. And that’s because this was the system of Hakodosh Boruch Hu when He gave us the Torah.
Hakodosh Boruch Hu is teaching us a fundamental lesson here. The great ideas of life; being aware of Hashem all the time, of loving Him and fearing Him; learning Torah and perfection of character, and so many other ideals – they’re all so important. However, whatever great ideals you want to achieve, you must always be walking that path to shleimus, to perfection, with your eyes constantly on the ideals of Mishpatim, of dealing properly with your fellow man.
THE PESACH PACKAGES THAT HASHEM IS NOT HAPPY WITH
And now we begin to see that nezikin, not to damage others people’s things, is a greater responsibility than doing favors to people. Imagine you’re a man who is going before Pesach to distribute packages, parcels to needy families. So you step into your car and you’re loaded down with various packages – matzohs, bottles of wine and other things. You’re a special fellow! You must be, because you’re taking from your own time, and your own money, to help others.
And you’re in a hurry – you have a lot of good deeds to accomplish. So you’re speeding through the streets. “Ohhhh! You’re speeding now,” Hakodosh Boruch Hu says. “That’s worse than if you hadn’t delivered any packages at all.” You’re endangering people. There will be a much greater punishment for that, for endangering other people, than for not being a goimel chasodim tovim. The very first thing that’s expected of you is not to transgress any nezikin. What comes after that is certainly a good thing. But nezikin is the most basic responsibility you have.
THE ALL-NIGHT MISHMAR THAT UPSETS HASHEM
Here’s a group of yeshiva men. Good boys, very good boys. And they just completed a full night of learning on Shavuos night. They were up all night learning Torah. And as they walk home, through the quite early morning street, they’re talking excitedly about their beautiful night of learning. Loud booming voices, repeating over the sugya. And they’re waking up everyone in the neighborhood! Do you know that some people have a hard time falling asleep? And if they’re woken up because of you, they won’t be able to fall asleep again. And their whole day is ruined because of you. Why do they have to suffer because you want to climb the ladder of greatness, without navigating the bottom rung first?
It’s a beautiful thing to be a tzaddik, and to climb the heights of avodas Hashem. And you won’t be able to skirt the responsibility for it. But, you must be aware of other people first! The first thing is to always be aware of other people. Let’s say you’re a yeshiva man, and now it’s 1:30, it’s time to learn mussar in the Yeshiva. So the mashgiach gives a klop on the table and everybody comes over to the shelf to take out a mussar sefer. At the end of the mussar seder, you just spent fifteen minutes, or a half hour, inspiring yourself with words of idealism, of perfection of character and all great things. So now, you’re an inspired young man! So what are you going to do what that inspiration? And the answer is that the first thing to do is to put the sefer back on the shelf where you took it from. Don’t leave it out for someone else to have to trouble himself. Think about someone else besides yourself. At least that much you should accomplish.
TURN AWAY FROM EVIL FIRST
You know, we learn from Dovid Hamelech, our great teacher, a great principle for life: סור מרע ועשה טוב – “Turn away from evil, and do good” (Tehillim 34:15). In everything you do, first you turn away from evil, and then do good. In everything that you do, the very first step is to turn away from evil. And so, when it comes to gemilas chasodim, bestowing kindness, what’s number one on the agenda? Number one is don’t injure your fellow man. That’s the least you can do in gemilas chasodim. Don’t harm his property, don’t harm his person and don’t harm his feelings – that’s the first rung.
Of course, you’re not a goimel chasodim tovim just because you’re not harming him. Are you considered a big ba’al chesed, just because you don’t harm your neighbor? Let’s say Hakodosh Boruch Hu wouldn’t harm you, but He wouldn’t give you anything to eat. He wouldn’t hurt you, but you have nothing to eat. Will you be happy with that?! And He gives you more than food. He gives you clothing. He gives you a pair of eyeglasses too. He gives you everything you need. So therefore, when we talk about the greatness of gemilas chasodim, it certainly doesn’t mean to avoid harming people. But there’s no question that the first rung is to turn away from the sin of harming others.
NOT BEING CAREFUL IS EVIL
And being careful with your fellow man and his property is not merely a middas chasidus! It’s a רע; it’s a sin not to be careful! The gemara in Z’vachim (66a) tells us that “because it is written that the owner of the pit must pay for the damages his pit causes, that demonstrates that he is obliged to cover his pit.” This important principle thus declares to us that every money-penalty in the Torah is the same as an admonition. Thus, it is a sin to dig a pit or uncover a pit where people may walk. It is a sin to light a fire which might travel and injure people or property. It is forbidden to allow your property to cause damage, even indirectly, to others. Thus, all of the laws in Mishpatim are actually admonitions of proper behavior, and therefore we must beware of causing damage, just as we must beware of transgressing any of the prohibitions of the Torah.
The sin of damages is the same as eating swine. And because not having wicked intentions is no excuse, Hashem leaves you almost no room for error. שלם ישלם, Hashem says. The double expression, “Pay, you must pay!” is coming to tell us something. It’s for emphasis! Even though you had no intention to cause any harm, no intent to damage your fellow man’s property, still “Pay, you must pay!”
HOW TO BECOME A CHOSSID
And that’s why the gemara in Bava Kama says: מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא ליקיים מילי דנזיקא – “If someone wants to be a chossid, a pious man, let him fulfill the things of nezikin.” (Bava Kama 30a). What’s nezikin? All of the minutiae, all of the smallest details in being careful with another person’s money – his property, his body, his feelings. A chossid, the Mesillas Yesharim says (Perek 19) is an oseh chesed. It’s from the word chesed. It’s a person who performs kindliness with others. And if you want to be a chossid, you must fulfill the dinim of damages, of injury, to your fellow man. Now it doesn’t mean you’re a chossid by doing that. It says, “If you want to be a chossid…” So, מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא – someone who wants to be a chossid, the first thing is ליקיים מילי דנזיקין – he should fulfill all of the details of never doing any sort of damage.
It’s a great principle that you’re hearing right now. If you want to reach the summit of perfection, if you want to be a chossid in the eyes of Hashem, it starts with being careful with your fellow man’s property. For some of us, this may seem exaggerated. Suppose someone would ask you, “What’s a program for me to become a pious man?” With our little heads, with what we know, we would say, “Well, first on the list is fasting. A lot of fasting!” But it doesn’t say a word about that over here. Maybe a chossid fasts as well, I cannot tell you, but not a word is mentioned in this gemara about fasting. Who knows what kind of a program we would think up if we were asked to decide! It’s lucky that we didn’t have the chance to put anything into the Chumash and into the Gemara. מילי דנזיקין wouldn’t even be on the bottom of the list.
THE FIRST STEP: A KAPOTEH AND A SHTREIMEL
But now we’re learning that we have to put our hearts and souls, our minds and all our energies into worrying about our fellow man’s money. Only then are you on the road towards chassidus. I’ll tell you a story that I’ve told you many times. There was once a boy who wanted to enter my shul to study Torah. The door was locked but he was a dedicated boy, an enthusiastic boy, so he was trying to make his way in through the window. I happened to come just as he was breaking the window. He didn’t intend to break it; he was just trying to force it open, but it broke. Now a window costs money, but I didn’t say anything. He was a yeshiva boy, a sixteen year old boy, and I kept quiet. He should have paid, but I didn’t say anything.
A few months later, I meet him on Church Avenue on Shabbos. And he’s all dressed up in a chassideshe kapoteh. With silk lapels; beautiful! It’s a beautiful thing to honor the Shabbos. Now, he wasn’t a chossid. He didn’t come from such a family at all! He came from Canarsie. I don’t even know if his parents are shomrei Shabbos.
But that was his idea of being a chossid. He wanted to wear a chassideshe kapoteh. Nothing wrong with that. But it costs a lot of money. These kapotehs can cost a small fortune. Silk lapels! And I was thinking, “That’s his idea of being a chossid.” But the Gemara says, “If you want to be a chossid, pay for the window that you broke.”
RAV ZELMELEH’S LAST MOMENTS
And we had great people in our history who understood that. They climbed the ladder of perfection one rung at a time. And even when they stood on the highest rungs, they never let go of the first steps they took. When Reb Zelmeleh Volozhin, the brother of Rav Chaim Volozhin, was on his deathbed, people came to visit him. And they found him lying on his bed and learning Torah without stop. This is how it’s described in Toras Ha’adam. Reb Zelmeleh was very weak – he was at the last moments of his life – so the people there said to him, “Our dear Rebbi, please take a rest. You’re so tired and weak.” So he said, “I can’t stop; it’s a Gemara. זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל, אפילו בשעת מיתה תהא עוסק בתורה – “Even in one’s dying moments, he should be learning Torah” (Shabbos 83b). So Reb Zelmeleh kept on learning till the end.
“But I want to get up,” he said. “Because Chazal say that a person should spend one third of his time sitting, one third standing and one third walking. So I want to get up and walk a little bit to fulfill this Gemara.”
Now, Reb Zelmeleh was very weak; he was on his deathbed, and he couldn’t get up without a cane. But he didn’t have one. “Oh, there’s a cane; right here in the corner! Take this cane; here take it.” But Reb Zelmeleh said, “No, no, I can’t take the cane. It doesn’t belong to me.” השואל שלא מדעת גזלן הוא – “Someone who borrows his friend’s object without permission is a robber” (Bava Metziah 41a). So they ran out to find the owner to get permission. And only after they returned did Reb Zelmeleh get up and use the cane. He walked around for a few minutes, talking in learning, and then he laid down and took his last breath.
That was a man who had his head in the clouds all the time; he lived on the highest rungs of perfection, but he always knew that מאן דבעי למהוי חסידא ליקיים מילי דנזיקין. Being careful with the possessions of others comes first.
Now, the one who is not careful with the first rungs of the ladder, will never be a success in life. And that’s because the Torah looks at these laws with the utmost severity. How does the Torah judge negligence of a person? The man who doesn’t properly watch his ox is even put to death because of his negligence (21:29). It’s frightening! A negligent person is put to death by Hashem! A frum man with a wife and children. And he’s taken away because of his negligence with the first rung of the ladder.
And it is not only his dangerous ox that man is responsible for. The one who studies Hashem’s words as intended, is not thinking only about an ox. He understands that Hashem is telling him that he is responsible, not only for his vicious ox, but for his rickety ladder as well. And for open windows when children are present, and for allowing a child to be alone in a room where candles are burning. The principle of Binyan Av teaches us that when the Torah gives an example, it must be applied to all other similar instances, unless some logical difference can be found. All harm caused to others by negligence is punishable by דיני שמים, by the laws of Heaven. And often, the guilt in the eyes of Hashem is extremely heavy.
WHO NEEDS YOUR KAVOD SHABBOS?!
Here’s a busy mother, who lights the Shabbos candles and then she goes into her bedroom to tidy herself up l’kavod Shabbos. And she leaves the children with the candles in the dining room. Without a shomer to watch the children! That’s a mazik of the first degree. Who needs preparing for Shabbos; who needs anything if it’s a sakanah, a danger?! It’s pikuach nefesh to leave children alone when the candles are burning! That type of behavior demonstrates that even the first rung was not attained. People are aiming at higher things, of oneg Shabbos, or kavod Shabbos – high madreigos – while they are skipping the very first step of watching their little children who are in danger of their lives. How can parents callously disregard such a sakanah and go ahead and climb the higher madreigos of preparing l’kavod Shabbos?
THE HOLY RASHA
And the father who is mechanech his children in the mitzvah of Chanukah. Every child must have a Chanukah menorah! He wants to be from the mehadrin. And even the smallest child is standing in front of his menorah being trained to say that brachos and light the candles. It’s a beautiful sight! But then the father walks out the room. He’s going to learn or maybe to say some special chapters of tehillim for Chanukah. So let me tell you, he’s a rasha! He’s not a chossid, and he’s not a mehadrin. He’s a rasha gommur. A real rasha, not a half baked one. And if you tell him that, you’ll earn a lifelong enemy. “You call me such a name?! We’re all ovdei Hashem in this house. Look how much we’re mehader after mitzvos. Even the little children are being trained to light Chanukah candles.”
And so we tell him, “No my friend, you’re looking at the top of the ladder, but you’re forgetting about the first rung.” Because nezikin, bein adam l’chaveiro, being careful not to harm somebody’s body, his life, his property, and his feelings, is the very first consideration. Hashem came down on Har Sinai and said to His people, “So you’re saying נעשה ונשמע? You’re ready to do?! So let me tell you what I want: !ואלה המשפטים
THE LISTERINER REBBE
I’ll give you another example. You’re talking to somebody in divrei Torah. It must be very important if you stopped him on the street to tell him these chiddushei Torah of yours. And as you’re talking to him, you let loose a flow of polluted air from your mouth. Oh, is it difficult to bear! Now, he’s too polite to run away from you. But you’re a mazik. You’re annoying him. But someone who is careful with מילי דנזיקין would never do that to another person.
I knew a tzaddik whose head was in the heavens all the time; his mind was always occupied with great thoughts. And yet he never spoke to anybody unless he perfumed his mouth first. I knew him very well. And for years he carried a little packet of listerine pellets in his pocket. He never came to speak to anybody unless he first perfumed his mouth. This was a man who lived with the ideals of mussar. Number one is don’t injure, don’t bother people. That’s the first rung of the ladder that goes up to heaven.
And it’s not only the big things, the events that we are all aware of. No, not at all. What is expected of you is much more subtle than that, and many of us are faltering all day long, without even recognizing our faults. It’s frightening to contemplate the depths of the judgement that we will all face one day when we stand before Hashem. And as much as you ignore it now, the more surprised you will be on that day. Because the details, so small and so subtle, are all encompassing, and we are expected to be aware of them always.
The Gemara in Chagiga (5a ) tells us that when a person is brought to judgment, he will be brought up on everything – he’ll be charged with things he never even imagined could be problematic. על כל נעלם… יביא במשפט says Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles (12:14). You will be brought to judgement on all the many things that are hidden away from you. And the gemara explains, זה ההורג כינה בפני חבירו ונמאס – “ this refers to someone who kills a louse, and someone nearby is disgusted by it.” Or הרק בפני חבירו ונמאס – “If you spit out some spittle or phlegm, and the person nearby is nauseated by it.” It wasn’t your fault; you had something stuck in your throat. And you covered your mouth. But still, even those minor acts of disregard for your fellow, and even if done unintentionally, will be brought up against you on that great day of judgement.
THE STREET CLEANER AND THE LAWYER
It’s so important to recognize how relevant all the dinim are to us. They’re not merely tangential details meant to stimulate heated discussion. It’s not just for the mitzvah of limud Torah. It’s much, much more than that. It’s our lifeblood. It’s how we look at the world. It’s how we live our lives and it’s the first step in finding favor in the eyes of Hashem.
I told you once; I met a Jew, he was a street cleaner. A Jewish street cleaner. In those days you had street cleaners. He was dressed in white, a white uniform, and he had a barrel on wheels and a brush. He used to go through the streets and clean. And he saw me on the street and he stopped to talk to me. His grandchild had started in a yeshiva. But he was surprised. “I’m surprised,” he said. “My grandson is being trained to be a lawyer! They’re studying law!” What kind of law? So he was telling me. He was explaining to me the beginning of Bava Kama.
Now, he expected the child to be taught the ideals of Judaism. And there are alot of ideals. There’s no end of what to talk about. But here, this little boy, his mind is being occupied, cluttered up, with a shor and a bor and a mav’eh and a hev’er and avos nezikin, and toldos, and all the details of damages.
At that time I told him what Rav Yisroel Salanter, zichrono l’vracha said. Rav Yisroel said that if you don’t start with little children, to teach them the laws of damaging somebody else’s property, they’ll never learn it. Because once they get accustomed to idealism without knowing responsibility for somebody’s property, they might be very pious people all their lives, but they’ll be very pious mazikim. They’ll have great ideals, and they’ll be stepping on other people’s rights all the time. It’s only when they’re young, that you can train them properly, by teaching them this fundamental principle. That’s the first rung in the ladder. Somebody else’s property! Rav Yisroel said that you have to start young, because if you wait a little while longer, it’ll never get into their heads that damaging somebody’s property has anything to do with yiras shamayim, with fear of G-d. So before they get any other ideas, you better start when they’re young. And that’s what we do.
And the truth is that the Giver of the Torah foresaw in these laws of Mishpatim, benefits that were far beyond the abilities of that generation that stood at Har Sinai to imagine. As valuable as these statutes are for harmony between the Bnei Yisroel, as well as for instruction in proper traits of character, and fear of Hashem, yet Hashem foresaw an even vaster blessing that these dinim would bestow. And that is the colossal merit of Torah study. For many generations, Jewish boys have labored over the study of these statutes all day long, and they found their joy and ambitions in these holy words of the Talmud Bavli. Instead of the malicious mischief and degraded pastimes in which the gentile youth around them have always engaged in, our youth discuss these words and argue about their details, searching for the truth. In the chadorim and the yeshivos, the holy battles are waged again and again, and each new day of Torah discussion engraves even deeper into the child’s mind the fundamental principle of caring for other people.
YOUR HAIR STANDS ON END
The ideals that we learn from our p’sukim should make your hair stand on end. Although indirect forms of damage to property (גרמא) are not penalized by payment in this world, they still bring upon your head “guilt in the laws of heaven.” You’re חייב בדיני שמים. Now, to stand guilty in the eyes of Hashem is no small matter. The fact that the Torah absolves you from a monetary payment shouldn’t be of any consolation at all.
And yet we find in the p’sukim some instances where even indirect damage requires a payment. Your animal walks away from the herd and damages someone’s property. A neighbor slips on a tool you left outside. These are only grama, and yet because of their frequency, the Torah imposes payment. But these few cases also demonstrate the great responsibility for indirect damage, even where the Beis Din can’t extract payment. Although the Beis Din can’t take action because often such acts make it difficult to ascertain the intention or the degree of carelessness of the perpetrator, but Hashem takes action in every instance.And that’s because these are sins no less than eating forbidden foods.
THE HONEST TAXI MAN
Without studying, every man thinks he’s honest. He knows that others are not, but he’s honest. I was once riding with a taxi man in his car. This taxi man used to take me every place, all the places I had to go. To all the institutions that I had to speak, he always took me there. So he became like a close associate of mine. So while he’s driving, he’s telling me his criticism of Orthodox Jews, his complaints. This and that, and also how honest of a man he was. And when we crossed from Brooklyn, when we crossed that highway, he closed the meter. So I said, “What’s the matter?” And he tells me, “That’s enough for my boss for today. My boss earned enough money for today.” He didn’t even dream that anything was wrong! This was the man who prided himself on being honest! Without studying, you have no idea what is right and what is wrong. Without studying Bava Kama and Bava Basra, you are a crook. Only that you have the best opinion of yourself. That’s the difference. If you study Bava Kama and Bava Basra, you might continue to be dishonest, but at least you know that you’re dishonest. And that itself is a big achievement!
I walked past a fruit store the other day, and I see a lady, not a poor woman. She’s wearing a fur coat; she’s dressed very proper. So she stops by the apricots in the bin outside, and she takes an apricot and begins to eat it. She’s a ganav! I see it all the time – gentiles in the street, walking past the fruit store and picking off a few grapes. And then some peanuts and even an apricot. “Oh,” they’ll say, “I’m just tasting to see if I want to make a purchase.” Just tasting?! A nechtige tug! I see it all the time and I tell them it’s stealing. “You can’t steal from the owner like that!” And the lady is surprised. “Me, steal?!” She would never steal!
RAV YISROEL SALANTER AND THE STOVEPIPE HAT
But it’s not enough to learn and to know. You must always be thinking about how to apply the details that you know. And this brings us back to that great man from three generations ago, Rav Yisroel Salanter. He was a model for the Jewish nation in many forms of perfection, including the following one. Rav Yisroel, zichrono l’vracha, spent part of his years in Keningsburg, a German city. And there, they used to wear cylinders on Shabbos, high stove pipe hats, hard hats like stove pipes. And once, as they were walking in the street, there was a wind blowing. So Rav Yisroel said to the people who were walking with him, “Hold on to your hats tightly because there’s a gemara in Bava Kama about this.” And the people with him – they were talmidei chachomim – not one of them could recall such a gemara.“Where is there such a gemara about stove pipe hats?” They couldn’t recall a sugya in Bava Kama about holding onto one’s hat. So he said, “It’s an open Gemara! אבנו סכינו ומשאו שהניחן בראש גגו ונפלו ברוח מצויה והזיקו – “If someone puts an object on top of his roof, and an ordinary wind comes and blows it off and it damages somebody, so you have to pay” (Bava Kama 6a). That’s a gemara. Now, they didn’t think that when it says there about putting an object on the roof, it would apply to putting a hard hat on your head. Because we don’t look to apply these ideas in our own lives. Now, our hats wouldn’t harm anybody – they’re a much softer material – but stove pipe hats can become a dangerous projectile, a missile. And if the wind would blow it off your head and it would hit someone in the eye, it would be a real injury.
And because Rav Yisroel learned Bava Kama to fulfill it – not merely to know the words, not merely to be proficient – so he was able to understand that משאו, a package, means a top hat, and that the roof is your head. And now a wind is blowing! He looked at the world around him through the lens of the mesichta, through the lens of Parshas Mishpatim. And looking at the world through the lens of Parshas Mishpatim means that you’re looking at the world through the lens of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.
There are so many instances quoted in the Gemara, so many cases of crookedness. Every possibility is presented! Only that you are studying the words because you want to know the details. You want to be a talmid chochom, not because you want to apply it to your own life. But if you are willing to open your mind to what Hashem wants from you in your life, then it will begin to dawn upon you that you are the one the Gemara is talking about.
THE GANAV WHO KNOWS MERUBAH BY HEART
Once I was in the Yeshiva across the street – I had to go in and daven Mincha – and I was observing a young man studying Perek Merubah. It’s the seventh perek of Bava Kama and it talks about the laws of a thief. All the details. And he was learning with a real appetite. It was a pleasure to look at! He was learning out loud: מרובה מדת תשלומי כפל ממדת תשלומי ארבעה וחמישה – He was saying it with a geshmak! He was clarifying all the complicated details. And I noticed that he was studying from a gemara that was from my synagogue! And it didn’t even occur to him that the thief that the Gemara was talking about was he! Stealing a gemara from a synagogue is also stealing. Lucky for him, I happened to be around!
WORKING ON THIS ALL DAY LONG
And I’m speaking to the women as well. One doesn’t have to be studying the intricacies of a Ktzos or even the simple shaklah v’taryah in the gemara, to recognize the greatness of always being on guard against causing any sort of damage. All of the great ideals that we are taught about in Parshas Mishpatim, the attitudes of being careful with somebody else’s body and property, should be judiciously applied all day long. A mother, as much as a father, is constantly faced with tests of climbing this ladder of perfection. When there are children’s toys on the floor – that’s your responsibility. You’re familiar with your floor. But when you have someone else coming into your home, it’s your obligation to collect the toys. And if you’re too lazy to bend over and pick them up, the least you could do is kick them under the couch. You have to do something, because the stranger is not aware of the pitfalls that you’ve left for him on your living room floor.
A LESSON IN CARRYING A CANE
Rav Yisroel was once walking with a learned man who was carrying a cane. Only that this man was carrying the cane horizontally – it was projecting out behind him. So Rav Yisroel reminded him, “Lower the point of your cane.” And this learned man did so, but in the course of the walking, during the conversation he forgot, and again he lifted up his cane behind him. Again Rav Yisroel reminded him, “Lower your cane.” He obeyed, and then again he forgot. So finally, Rav Yisroel parted company with him. He said, “You’re transgressing a statement in the gemara.” The Gemara says מי שהיה חצירו סמוך לרשות הרבים – “If your yard, or your garden, is right next to the street, and your thorns are growing out into the street, it’s your job to shear them off, to cut them short.” That’s how he studied a gemara. Just as thorns project from a garden into the street and it will hurt somebody passing by, the same thing with your cane. You’re not a genuine talmid chochom unless your mind is actually attuned to what you’re learning.
THE BLACK WOMAN ON THE BUS KNOWS MORE THAN YOU
Here’s a pious man getting onto a bus – I once saw a yeshiva man getting onto a bus holding an umbrella with a pointed metal tip. A black woman was getting on the bus behind him, and he almost poked her eye out. And she scolded him. She gave it to him, and he was offended. This learned gentleman was offended. But the truth is that this gentile lady was right, and this talmid chochom, this lamdan, was wrong. You can’t walk around with disregard for those around you! That has to be in the forefront of your mind at all times.
TRIPPING THE ROSH YESHIVA
Or once, in the yeshiva, a young man was sitting and studying Torah with diligence, and his foot was sticking out into the aisle. So the Rosh Yeshiva passed by and said, “It’s like a bor b’reshus harabim. Your foot is a pit on the public thoroughfare. It’s a public obstacle.” The sin of bor includes any object that might cause stumbling or falling, and any injury or loss. To stretch a foot out into the aisle, or to leave a valise where a passerby might fall is certainly a sin. And if somebody would fall down over it, you would say, “Oops, excuse me.” And you would think that you’re a very fine fellow for being so polite. But you’re a mazik! A sinner!
And that’s possible even by people who learn, people who should be wary all day long about מילי דנזיקין. But people who never learn, people who rely on their innate sense of right and wrong, they’re a thousand times worse. It doesn’t even occur to them. This story, I have to repeat it although I told it about a hundred times already. Once a relative of mine, a woman, came to visit. So she tilted a chair against the glass door and the chair went through one of the glass panels. “Oh, excuse me,” she says. And that was the end of it. No! That’s not the end! It’s far from the end of it!
“EXCUSE ME” IS NOT ENOUGH
There was an elderly woman here, who walked into a home, and she fell over a child’s toy. And she broke her foot. So the parents said, “Oh” and “Uh,” and they said, “We’re so sorry.” Sorry?! You’re mazikim! You’re responsible! You have to learn what it means to have regard for others people’s welfare and their property. “Excuse me,” is not enough. It’s a sin on your part. And you’ll pay for it!
I can tell you a story about myself. I was at a sheva brachos one time and I was passing the cup of wine to someone. And a few drops spilled on his suit. Now, I also said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry.” And the man said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” But I couldn’t let that be. As soon as Shabbos ended, I made sure to mail out a check to this man, to pay for the cleaning. I should walk around with that guilt over my head?! And even though the man says, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” that doesn’t mean anything. What do you expect him to say already?!
PREPARING FOR THE MISHKAN
And now we can understand why the subject of Mishpatim was the first subject to be treated at length after the Giving of the Torah. Soon after came the lengthy and detailed laws of building the Mishkan and its keilim, the preparation of the home of Hashem where He would actually rest His presence among the Am Yisroel. Now, the Mishkan is exceedingly important, and more space is devoted to it in the Torah than to anything else. Yet, the first subject that Hakodosh Boruch Hu taught us in detail was the laws governing relations between man and his fellow man. Because without the first step on the ladder, of judiciously fulfilling all of our obligations to keep far away from causing any harm, the Presence of Hashem could not rest among us. It is only when we do understand these obligations that we become worthy of having Hashem rest His Presence among us.
And the reason for that is that all of these admonitions are intended chiefly to keep us ever mindful of Hashem. Although these Mishpatim cause the welfare of man, as well as the perfection of character for the one who trains himself to care about his fellow, yet the most important achievement is that it serves as constant reminders that Hashem looks always upon our deeds, even the most subtle of deeds, and that we are always obligated to behave as one behaves in the presence of a king. And therefore, even the most mundane activities of a Jewish man or woman are always saturated with awareness of Hashem. And that awareness is your perfection in this world, and your preparation for your eternal happiness when you finally come to bask in the true Presence of Hashem in the World to Come.
Have a wonderful Shabbos.