TRUTH, JUSTICE & THE TORAH WAY
Rabbi David Walk
After the fireworks of last week's account of the epiphany at Sinai, this week's parsha seems very tame. But this week we read, perhaps, the most inspiring declaration of our loyalty to God and the Torah. As the Divine presence withdraws from the quaking mountain the Jews proclaim: Na'aseh v'nishma (We will do and we will listen, Exodus 24:7). This statement is the more remarkable because it takes place after the prosaic laws listed in this week's Torah reading. Usually we expect this kind of dramatic assertion after stirring laws like 'remember the exodus,' 'sanctify God's name' or 'love God with all your heart, soul and might.' Instead we get this remarkable commitment affirmed after laws like 'free indentured servants after six years', 'goring oxen must be executed' and, that crowd favorite, 'pit owners must pay for pit caused damages.' Pretty thrilling stuff! So, it behooves us to try and understand the sequence of material in this week's Torah reading.
Legal systems have an intrinsic problem. Let's assume that there's a commitment to justice and fairness. Then we must balance the needs of the individual with the concerns of the community. That's easier said than done. We know that much of the acrimony between left and right, conservative and liberal is the sincere disagreement about how to reconcile these two legitimate interests. The Midrash gives a parable to help us understood this difficulty: Imagine a highway that passes between two paths, one filled with fire and the other filled with snow. If one travels towards the fire, then he is burnt, and if he travels in the direction of the snow, then he freezes. What should he do? He should travel between them (Avot D'Rav Natan, 28:10). But where is that middle?
Let me present another dilemma. God descends upon Mount Sinai to give us the Law. We could assume that the purpose is to present us with Divine imperatives. Instructions are to ignore this-worldly concerns in favor of esoteric spiritual demands. We might think that God will insist that we ignore the physical and develop the spiritual. Maybe the objective is to make us all ascetics. But that can't be, because God gives us Torat Chayim, a Torah of and for life. We must survive and, therefore, fulfill ushmartim me'od l'nafshoteichem (guard well your physical well-being, Deuteronomy 4:15). Our Sages have concluded that we must not only be concerned for both, but each is only beneficial when we apply them together. It states in Pirkei Avot: Torah is only good with earthly pursuits (chapter 2, mishneh 2). How do we reconcile these two valid demands?
Rav Yehudah Amital OB"M explained that these dilemmas can only be reconciled by God and that's why it states in Psalms: The Laws of God are true; they are righteous together (19:10). What does the verse mean by 'together'? Rav Amital makes clear that the system only makes sense in its entirety. Picking isolated laws can only lead to confusion and a misunderstanding of God's overarching purpose and goal.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein points to another dichotomy inherent in these laws of justice. Often there is a tension between justice and peace. A strict interpretation of the law can cause both hardship and enmity, but a loose version can cause a dilution of the principles of law. The Talmud presents just such a debate. Rebbe Eliezer son of R. Yosi ha'Glili says, if two parties came for judgment one may not decide upon a compromise; if the judge declares a compromise, he commits a sin. If one even praises the judge who compromises, that person angers God. However, later in that same debate it presents an alternate opinion. Rebbe Yehoshua ben Korchah says, it is a Mitzvah to compromise. And then the Talmud starkly states the dilemma: If there is Mishpat (justice), there is not Shalom. If there is Shalom, there is not Mishpat(Sanhedrin 6b). Again we are presented with a difficult choice between clashing principles.
How can we possibly deal with all these competing principles? It seems that an impossible task has been laid before us. That can't be, because God tells in Deuteronomy that the Torah is not in heaven nor beyond the sea (Deuteronomy 30-12-13). In other words, the mission of living a Torah life is not beyond our feeble talents. I think that the solution is presented in the very first verse of our parsha: And these are the laws that you shall place before them (Exodus 21:1). Lay this material down before the Jewish people. They'll figure it out. There is an argument amongst the Rabbis over who is the antecedent of the pronoun 'them' in the verse. The Sages present a few opinions (TB Gittin 88b). It could mean before Jews as opposed to Gentiles or before ordained judges instead of lay people. But I believe strongly that the real idea is as I've suggested. God is giving these Divine guidelines for us to develop and administer a holy society whose greatest goal is to follow the path paved for us by a loving and caring God.
When do we opt for communal need over personal necessity? How often do we choose compromise over strict adherence to the letter of the law? Why will we sometimes lean towards an earthly consideration over a spiritual requirement? Well, all these various considerations will change from circumstance to circumstance and from age to age. Every generation studies the material anew and does its best to calibrate how the law applies to its situation. We may not agree with every decision, but we show faith in the integrity of the legal system.
We go back to the verse used by Rav Amital. God's laws are true and they work well 'together'. We'll never see the perfection of every detail, but we do observe the glory of the judicial stucture which has maintained the Jewish people's ethic for three thousand years. The intricate arrangement of truth, peace, justice, fairness and sanctity continues to be worth our effort and to receive God's blessing. And that faith in God's gift inspired the Jews to proclaim, Na'aseh V'nishma!