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Parshas Mishpatim - Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse, But it is Reality                                     24 Shvat 5778

02/09/18 08:35:31


One Yom Tov afternoon during lunch, I peered out my window and from the corner of my eye I noticed a parking enforcement vehicle stop by my car. At the time of this event, we had been living in San Diego for only a couple of years. I wondered why the officer was writing me a summons. Quickly, I ran out and assured the officer that I had my Permit B parking sticker. The officer informed me I was being cited for not turning my wheels away from the curb. I was in total shock, and said to her, “I did not know that was a law!” She said, “Did you pass your driver’s test? it’s in the driver’s manual.” Sheepishly, I admitted defeat and said, “O.K., just write the ticket.” She immediately said, “Go ahead and turn them now and I won’t cite you.” I replied, thank you but it’s a holiday and I can’t go into the car.” She then asked me to give her the keys and she’d turn the wheel for me.” Again, I had to tell her, “I can’t do that. Just write the ticket.” She could not believe someone would do such a thing. She tore up the ticket, totally exacerbated.

Parking on public streets and alleys is regulated by the San Diego Municipal Code and the California Vehicle Code. One of the general provisions of law applies to whether there are signs or curb markings present or not. “Wheel cramping is required on all grades over 3% (hills) with or without the presence of signs. Block your wheels diagonally against the curb by turning your wheels into the curb when facing downhill and out to the street when facing uphill.”

The purpose of curbing your car’s wheels is to prevent an accident should the brakes fail. Therefore, if you are headed downhill, turn your front wheels into the curb or toward the side of the road and set the parking brake. Headed uphill, turn your front wheels away from the curb and let your vehicle roll back a few inches. The wheel should gently touch the curb. Then set the parking brake. Headed either uphill or downhill when there is no curb, turn the wheels so the vehicle will roll away from the center of the road if the brakes fail. I thought this was an outdated law given that the brake systems of modern cars are much better and safer today than when the law was instituted. That logic was shattered when I witnessed my neighbor getting a ticket for not curbing his wheels. I questioned the officer and he told me there are instances even today that necessitate the wheels being turned. He told me if a vehicle plows into a parked car, it’s very likely, or at least possible, that the brake could disengage, possibly causing the car to roll into the street. I learned a valuable lesson. Just because Ithink the law should not apply today for reason “X,” it may still be needed for reason “Y” - a probability which I never thought or knew about!

Throughout my teaching and Rabbinic career, I’ve received three basic reactions when discussing certain Mitzvos and our obligations to observe them. The response is either, "The reason no longer applies", “I did not know that” or “That’s ridiculous!” Frequently, the latter reaction is due to a lack of education or belief. It all boils down to more learning of the Torah She’B’Al Peh, the Oral Torah - which compliments and explains the written law. When it comes to Mitzvos, there are two words that describe them: Chukim and Mishpatim. Chukim are the laws that we do not understand; we do not know the reasons which underlie why we observe them. These are commandments that a society creating laws would not come up with. Mishpatim, the namesake of this week’s parsha, are laws that we do understand; we would implement these laws when building a community. There were a few Rishonim* who enumerated the six hundred thirteen commandments from within the fifty-four parshios of the Torah. These Rishonim do not agree on the actual place in the Torah from where each Mitzva is derived or learned. Ramba”m lists Mishpatim tied fourth with the most Mitzvos in any one parsha, while the sefer HaChinuch** lists Mishpatim as the parsha with the fourth most Mitzvos. Some Mitzvos are difficult or challenging to decipher as to whether the Mitzva is a Chok or a Mishpat. Clearly there are certain situations where a Mitzva can beinterpreted to be both between man and man or man and God, depending upon the situation.

In this week’s Parshas Mishpatim we learn of at least one Mitzva that can have multiple meanings and connotations. In Shmos 21:2 the Torah states: “Lo Tihyeh Acharei Rabim L’Raos, V’Lo Ta’Aneh Al Riv Lintos, Acharei Rabim L’Hatos”. “Do not follow the majority to do evil, do not speak up in a trial to pervert justice, a case must be decided based upon the majority.” It is obvious that we should not follow anyone who is doing evil. It is also obvious in cases of law that we decide according to the majority. In questions of Halachik uncertainty, the Rabbi’s derive “to follow the majority” from this concept. For example, if an unidentifiable piece of meat is found in the market where there are ten butcher shops, nine kosher and one non-kosher, the meat is deemed kosher. But if nine out of ten were treif and one kosher the meat can not be eaten.

Reb Elchonon Wasserman ZT”L (1874-1941) writes in his sefer Kovetz HeAros about a famous exchange between Reb Yonason Eybeshutz (1690-1764) and one of the wisest Gentile scholars. The gentile challenged the Rabbi as follows: “It states in your Torah to follow the majority, and your nation is the fewest in number of all the nations of the world. Given this fact, why don’t you and your people follow our beliefs?” Reb Yonason answered, “The rule and law of following the majority is only applicable in areas of doubt; it is not applicable when we are sure of something. In the case of the meat, if the piece of meat was discernible and we knew that it was not kosher, we don’t say it is kosher because nine out of ten stores only sold kosher meat. Rather, in that situation the meat is still not good and not kosher.” So too with the Jewish people and our belief in Hashem. We do not have any doubts as to our belief about Hashem and the Torah and all the principles that go along with these beliefs. Despite the other nations of the world making up the majority of the population, we are sure of what we know; we are sure of our beliefs. Therefore, the majority rule does not apply to us in this situation. The Chasam Sofer adds if there is logic, if there are plausible arguments, then we follow the majority. If the issues discussed can be seen from both sides of the argument, then we follow the majority. However, an issue that is as clear as the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, no matter how many people emphatically state the opposite, we do not follow them. We know Hashem and His Torah is EMES/ truth. This is no question to be discussed in a rational scientific, logical manner.

Many Jews in the world are uneducated, lacking a well-rounded, solid Jewish education. Unfortunately, this leads such a person to join most people who challenge and don’t follow the Torah. It behooves every Jew to thoroughly learn the Torah, to see for himself or herself the absolute truth and follow the minority in the face of the majority. My hope and prayer is for every Jew to become educated in Torah and not to use ignorance as an excuse for not following the Torah and do Mitzvos. Equally important is to keep in mind if we think the reason for the Mitzva no longer applies......think again


*Rishonim "the first ones" were the leading rabbis and poskim, who lived approximately during the 11th to 15th centuries during the era before the writing of the Shulchan Aruch "Set Table", a common printed code of Jewish law, 1563 CE and following the Geonim (589-1038 CE). Rabbinic scholars after the Shulkhan Arukhare generally known as acharonim ("the latter ones").


**The sixteenth century author Gedalya Ben Yichyeh credited the Sefer ha-Chinuch to Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona (1235-c. 1290), a Talmudic scholar and halachist.Others disagree, as the views of the Chinuch contradict opinions held by HaLevi in other works. This has led to the conclusion that the true author to Sefer HaChinuch was a different Reb Aharon Halevi, a student of the Rashba, rather than his colleague. Though there is a debate about who is the true author, it is agreed that the Sefer HaChinuch was written by a father to his son, upon reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah.


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