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Parshas Mishpatim - Bending the Rules? Maybe Just Follow Them!         27 Shvat 5783

02/17/2023 07:59:09 AM


I must confess that for the first time in the last thirty years, I did not watch the Super Bowl. I also must admit that it was not a religious reason that drove my conscience to intentionally miss the game, but rather circumstances on the day of the Super Bowl which prevented me from watching. Hopefully, Mitoch Shelo Lishma Bah Lishma, meaning, hopefully for doing something not for the right sake will lead a person to the right reason. A third and last declaration of guilt comes by way of watching a replay of one of the most crucial and significant plays of the game that, with a rule in question, caused a major influence on the outcome of the game.

If you did not happen to be one of the 130 million Super Bowl viewers, (more than 1/3 of the country - I will address this craziness in a future message), I will sum up the scenario: Picture having less than five minutes remaining to the game, score tied 35-35, a defensive holding call on a player who grabbed/tugged on the jersey of the receiver, thereby allowing the team to kick a game -winning  field goal with time basically expiring. The referee’s flag was called into question due to two factors: 1) The small infraction that very often is not flagged as a foul, and 2) The timing of the call, considering the score and the stage of the most important game of the year. One of the heartwarming revelations came in a post-game interview with the defender who admitted, ”Yes, I grabbed the receiver’s jersey”. The world (at least the losing team) will still argue the two facts  mentioned above - that the referee should not have called that penalty. Chaza”l teach us that everything that happens in the world should be reviewed and contemplated regarding how that situation relates to me.

There are few people in the world who don’t occasionally break a small law. The national speed limit of fifty-five mph is violated daily by millions of drivers. We know there is a bit of leeway, although technically anything above fifty-five (unless otherwise posted) is breaking the law. There are dozens of examples to cite where every human being and law-abiding citizen at times stretches and pushes the limit of the law, many times breaking it. The question is why? Why would a person who respects the law attempt to knowingly break it? The answer is two-fold; 1) Since everybody else is doing it, it’s ok, and 2) The enforcement of certain laws unofficially allows it and nothing is done. Nevertheless, if we were pulled over for an infraction or caught by the government for breaking a law, we would not have a good defense. Perhaps we could attempt to present rational reasons/excuses for our behavior which might influence the officer or judge. In case the officer or judge does not see it our way, however, we would be liable. This semi-rationalization may work for things in the physical world regarding our daily living in a society, but does this same thinking work in the spiritual world of Judaism? Unfortunately, the Yetzer Hora does whatever it takes to convince us to bend the rules, to make excuses, not only breaking the spirit of the law but sometimes actually breaking the law itself.

The Torah in this week’s Parshas Mishpatim states in Shmos 21:1"ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם"  - “These are the laws that you must set before [the Israelites].” Rashi explains the word ואלה  - ‘and these are’ adds to the preceding. Just as the preceding laws were given at Sinai, so, too, these laws were given at Sinai. Reb Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, the first Gerrer Rebbe, in his sefer Chidushei HaRim explains that the necessity of this is because people would err in their logic. Some people may come to think since ‘Mishpatim’ are logical commandments, they would be obligated through common sense. Perhaps they would even go as far to suggest that these Mitzvos that are ‘seicheldik’- common sense - that they were not given by God, rather they were created by man. Therefore, the Torah comes to testify that ‘these’ and ‘those’, these Mishpatim/laws are the same as the Chukim/statutes that are commandments which come from the mindset of Hashem, not man. Even these Mishpatim, these laws that man would come up with, are commanded to us through the will of Hashem and not because logic dictates that we obey them. Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the grandson of the Chidushei HaRim, refers in his sefer the Sfas Emes to an explanation by  Rashi that Moshe did not want to explain any of the reasons regarding the Mishpatim/laws to the Jews until Hashem Yisborach said the words, “that you must set before them” [the Jews]. This is because Moshe believed that if he explained the reasons to the laws, the people would perform the mitzva due to the reason, not because God commanded, we obey them and it was His will that we do so. And so God said to Moshe, ‘place them ALL [Chukim and Mishpatim] so they will perform and fulfill the Mitzvos because Hashem commanded - despite knowing the reasons explained behind the Mitzvos.

As a Rabbi and teacher, I regularly receive ‘shailos’/questions in halacha or Jewish practice. All too often a question is accompanied by the words “and the reasons no longer apply today” so why do we still do this,  or even must do this? I’ve said many times that it is okay to ask a question, but it is unacceptable to question a practice or a Halacha. Nevertheless, people still ask, “Rabbi, does God really care if I do something a minute too early or a minute too late? Does God really care if I eat this or that? Does it really make a difference if I do this or not do that? I’m a good person, isn’t that all that counts? The resounding answer to all these questions is “YES!” If a person believes in Hashem as the God of the universe, the King of all kings, the Being that gave us the Torah, is the Author of all its nuances and details, then YES everything makes a difference and who are we to say or question otherwise. True, a person has a yetzer hora, and we are only human, therefore we might come to sin, but at least we know we sinned, and it does make a difference.

We live in a society that wants everything to be permissible. On top of that, we want all to be blessed, to be assured that it is okay.  The influence and norms of society creep into the Jewish world affecting us in the worst ways, tearing down the sense of what makes us different from the other nations of the world. If we were playing any game or sport in this world and we did not go by the rules and follow the rule book, we would be considered cheaters. We might not feel the obligation and necessity to follow the laws of the Torah in its strictest sense by going by the Book. If we do not go by the book in every detail as it was presented at Har Sinai, then we are cheating the system, and ultimately, we’ll lose the game.

Let us strengthen our commitment to Torah observance, close the self -made, manufactured loopholes, and re-accept the Torah as we say on Purim: Kimu V’Kiblu, Mah SheKibel Kvar - We have held and accepted that which we have already received (on Har Sinai)!

Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784