Rabbi David Walk
When I was a student at Yeshiva University many years ago, people (by 'people' I mean either random strangers or uncles) would ask what I was going to do in 'real life.' By 'real life', of course, they meant what would I do for a livelihood after I completed my formal education. For a while my ploy was to size up the questioner, and decide what answer I could give that would stop them from asking more uncomfortable questions. Often I would say 'law', because that's a great translation for Torah, but sometimes I'd just whisper 'plastics'. However, when I was a rebbe teaching young men in Israel, I began to find this inquiry offensive. After all, every night we say 'For they (the words of Torah) are our lives and the length of our days', as part of our evening service. We really must believe that Torah is an integral part of our lives. So, what do these well meaning interlopers mean by their inquiry? I think that the real problem is that they sincerely believe that there is a contrast, if not an actual conflict between a Torah life and a 'normal' life. That's sad, and worth further investigation.
Before I get rolling, I want to share something I saw in an article by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etziyon. The great rosh yeshiva is also an English lit maven (PhD. from Harvard, no less), and he wrote that C. S. Lewis (whom I know from the Narnia tales) pointed out in his Studies in Words that when a person speaks about 'real life' he/she refers to those elements of life that she/he values most highly. Sadly, many people call a business deal 'real life', but withhold that lofty title from pursuits like poetry or philosophy. Or Torah study, for that matter, and that's tragic. Reb Aharon adds that a world view in which utilitarian activities take precedence over the realm of thought is deficient from any self-respecting religious or spiritual point of view. And this week is a great time to discuss this issue, because parshat Mishpatim puts every day occurrences into a Torah context. For example, it discusses what the Torah legislates when my ox gores (or crashes into) your ox. If that sounds arcane or archaic, just omit ox and insert SUV, and we're right at home.
The Torah reading discusses dozens of scenarios and cases. There are criminal court issues as well as torts and family law. But the central theme is the same: We want Torah to guide us in our journey through life. Our parsha demands that Torah rules and regulations are required in our business and earthly endeavors as much as in our spiritual lives. We must not compartmentalize Torah to a portion of our existence, or bifurcate our lives into Torah and secular realms. When I'm in the midst of a difficult negotiation I must also consider the ethics demanded by our God and our religion.
Our Sages guided us in this enterprise by choosing a Haftorah which illustrates a specific
problem in fulfilling this demand. Although there are many reasons given for our weekly recitation of a passage from the Prophets, I firmly believe that its institution was a pedagogic device for pointing out the central point of the weekly Torah reading. This week, our Sages chose a reading from Jeremiah which reiterates the parsha's concern about how one treats slaves or indentured servants. I think that they chose this reading because they noticed people in their own time period were falling short in this critical area of business ethics. This conclusion is in consonance with my general opinion that the rabbis throughout the ages were addressing their own congregants rather than the specific issue in the text. So, I believe, that when this Haftorah was chosen 2,000 years ago the Jews weren't treating those who were below on the social scale with sufficient respect.
What does this mean to us? Thank God we have eliminated slavery and indentured servitude from our normative life styles. Sadly, slavery still exists but it is not acceptable in our societies. So, what issue in our parsha would our Sages have chosen to discuss if they were addressing our generation? There are many worthy candidates for this distinction of most important topic in our parsha. For example there are laws of returning lost articles, not lending money to other Jews with interest, helping others even if we don't like them, going to Jewish courts whenever possible and, of course, not lying. However, as my number one topic, I would have chosen the following verse: And you should never oppress in word or deed the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20). As a matter of fact, this law is actually repeated, when we're told that we should know the anguish of the stranger because we were once there ourselves (23:9). Quite often, as we get more affluent and successful we tend to forget the trials that those less fortunate experience. We forget the suffering our ancestors experienced in Egypt or our grandparents endured as newcomers in western societies. If I had to nominate a winner I'd choose how we treat the stranger from amongst all the worthy candidates. It's an area we can all work on.
But those rabbis didn't stop there. They tacked two verses onto the Haftorah from earlier in the book of Jeremiah: Thus said God: If I hadn't made a covenant with day and night, and hadn't established the laws of heaven and earth, then I might have forsaken the progeny of Ya'akov and David and chosen other than the seed of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov; however I will return their captives and show compassion (Jeremiah 33:25-26). The laws of science and the laws of Torah have the same author. The Torah is just as real as the sun rising in the east. If my life on planet earth is real then so is my life in Torah. Torah, it's the real thing.