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Parshas Mishpatim - Standing up as A Jew in Public        26 Shvat 5782

01/27/2022 12:23:40 PM

Jan27

Every state of our union has different mask requirements. One of my congregants had recently been in a state that recommends - but has not required - face coverings for the public. When she and her family ate out at the local kosher restaurant, she noticed that no one was wearing a mask. She was surprised and said aloud, “I do not know why people don’t follow the rules (although only a recommendation). One of the obvious-looking Jewish patrons replied, ”We have enough rules to follow!” Now that may sound funny but … on the other hand it may seem preposterous.

Interestingly, there is one place in this country where everyone must wear a mask. A few weeks ago, while in flight returning from Chicago,  I was waiting to use the restroom when the flight attendant almost blurted out that she davens at such and such shul in Chicago. We spoke a little about Jewish life in San Diego and Chicago, and I was curious about her being a Jewish (very traditional and knowledgeable but not Orthodox) stewardess. She told me, almost as a confession, how challenging it is to be known as a Jew among her gentile co-workers. She was not at all inferring that she had experienced anti-Semitic rhetoric or the like. Rather, she expressed how personally embarrassing it is for her when confronting some Jewish passengers who refuse to comply with the rules. She asked, ”Why is it that some Jews, even though a small minority, feel they don’t have to abide by the rules?” She tried explaining the concept and I told her the expression she was looking for was ‘Chilul HaShem’. She explained that this issue has always existed on a small scale, but Covid and masking seem to have exacerbated the frequency of this refusal to comply among Jewish passengers. She did add that there are many people, not just Jewish passengers, who have issues regarding compliance with masking and many other FAA rules on planes. In fact, she stated that percentage wise, Jews are overall compliant with the rules and do tend to be more courteous and respectful. The issue she has, and she knows it’s not fair, is that when “it’s the Jew” it becomes magnified a hundred-fold. While acknowledging the ‘unfairness’ of this situation, she said it is, nevertheless, the reality on the ground and in the air! Since she knows who is in the cabin, she cringes when she hears some disturbance going on, hoping it is not being caused by an obviously-observant Jewish passenger. As she was describing the scenario to me, she openly acknowledged the double standard applied regarding a Jewish person and everyone else. Nevertheless, she remained  stymied while also understanding she cannot win an argument of this kind with her co-workers.   

When comparing these two scenarios of eating out in a kosher restaurant and traveling on a plane, it’s easy to recognize the distinction between them. The restaurant is located in a state that does not have an official masking rule while the airline industry in its entirety adheres to a standard of very strict rules. In fact, the airlines universally adhere to  the strictest rules anywhere in the world. There is a time and place where every Jew needs to accept and follow the rules even if they disagree with them. I want to make myself clear: this issue applies when a rule such as wearing a mask while on the plane and the Jew, a passenger on the plane chooses not to follow the rule and makes a scene. This specific situation is a clear case of committing a Chilul HaShem.

Does the question of Dinah D’Malchusa Dinah - following the law of the land - apply to masking? The Halachik ruling is if the government does not enforce a policy, then we, as Jews, are not in violation of “the law of the land”. By the way, that does not mean one is forbidden or should be discouraged from wearing a mask. Perhaps at the very early stages and beginning of the pandemic there may have been an interpretation of the law as such. Fast forward almost two years and the requirement of wearing a mask is still not consistently enforced nationally or even on a state-wide level. The law requiring the wearing of a mask is, however, strictly enforced on all commercial flights, clearly making the wearing of a mask in flight Dinah D’Malchusa Dinah.

We are very familiar with all kinds of laws and customs, starting with biblical and rabbinic laws, followed by customs and traditions from a variety of upbringings and regional centers of Judaism. We know the D’Orysa or biblical commands are absolute, requiring  the Talmudic explanation of how, when and why we perform and fulfill these Mitzvos. The Mitzvos are broken down into many categories and sub-categories. One such distinction is found in the namesake of this week’s Parsha Mishpatim.  Mishpatim are laws that ‘make sense’;  anyone could come up with or understand the reasons behind them. Parsha Mishpatim contains fifty-one of the 613 mitzvos, making this parsha  tied at fourth place for the most mitzvos in any one parsha. Mishpatim, laws which make sense, is contrasted to Chukim, the statues that we do not understand or know the reasons for the Mitzva. To appreciate the distinction between the Torah laws and Mitzvos versus the laws of any society are clear and absolute, but even within the laws of Judaism there is a stark difference between the Chukim and the Mishpatim. (Please take note that Mishpatim, which contains most of the commandments between man and man is listed first).

There is one commentator who stands out among the great Rishonim who can explain the importance of the Mishpatim. Rabbeinu Bachya introduces every parsha with a passuk/verse from Mishlei, the book of parables written by the wisest of all men, Shlomo HaMelech. The following is an excerpt from the introduction of this week’s Parshas Mishpatim which begins with a quote from Mishlei:  "גם אלה לחכמים הכר פנים במשפט בל טוב" (משלי כד, כג) “These things also belong to the wise; it is not good to display partiality in judgment” (Proverbs 24,23).   

From the beginning of the Book of Proverbs up until here Shlomo Ha Melech, Solomon the King, made it his business to admonish foolish people and adolescents. In fact, he announced his purpose at the very beginning of the Book of Mishlei – the Book of Proverbs - when he said in chapter 1:4 “to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.” Commencing with this verse he switches and admonishes the scholars, the ones who preside in the courts and dispense justice. Therefore, he said at the beginning of the verse we quoted above גם אלה, meaning that “also these parables” are meant for the wise. What does his admonition consist of? “It is not good to display partiality in judgment.” Shlomo condemns partiality as a negative character trait. Why did we need Shlomo HaMelech to tell us this, seeing that the Torah in Devarim 1:17 has already written: לא תכירו פנים במשפט, “do not show favoritism in judgment?” Shlomo added an additional dimension to what the Torah had said in that the Torah did not mention a specific penalty for judges guilty of showing favoritism. Shlomo adds in passuk/verse 24:24: ”He who says to the wicked ‘you are righteous’ will be cursed by people; nations will abhor him.” If a judge convicts an innocent person, the outrage of the people will be even greater, and he will likely be removed from his position as judge. Seeing that the entire Torah from בראשית until לעיני כל ישראל is inextricably tied to a system of justice, Shlomo said בל טוב instead of לא טוב parallel to what we say in Tehilim 147,20 ומשפטים בל ידעום, “He did not acquaint them (the Gentiles) with a system of fair justice.”

It is a well-known fact that משפט Mishpat - a system of justice, is the foundation of the throne of Hashem’s glory as mentioned in Tehilim /Psalms 89,15: ”Righteousness and justice are the foundations of your throne.” Anyone helping to establish true justice on earth thereby helps to strengthen the foundation of God’s throne. He who perverts justice undermines the foundations of God’s throne. By saying בל טוב, Shlomo indicated that a person guilty of this will not merit טוב- will not experience “goodness in store for the righteous,” of which the psalmist (Psalm 31:20) said: ”How abundant is the good that You have in store for those who fear You.”

Shlomo taught us in Proverbs that he who is guilty of showing partiality in judgment will be punished not only in this world but also in the world to come. Justice is the prerequisite for peace. Therefore, we find Yisro telling Moshe that if he were to carry out his advice with the approval of God, “…also this whole people will arrive at its destination in peace.” (Exodus 18,23). Peace ensures the continued existence of the world. This is why Chaza”l in Gemara Brachos 64 say that the scholars, who oversee administering justice, add to the amount of peace in the world.

It is only the Torah that contains  a perfect system of right and wrong. We often get caught up in “other laws”, viewing them as a nuisance or an invasion of our personal rights or freedom. To the contrary, laws of the society in which we live, travel, and function are laws which must be respected. To flaunt them or openly reject them is a clear Chilul HaShem. Dinah D’Malchusa Dinah, the law of the land is the law. These ‘other laws’ do not overrule or contradict the Torah. May we merit the time when true justice reigns supreme in the coming of days.

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782