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Friday, 13 February, 2015 - 10:47 am

Not so very long ago, an old Polish man was feeling guilty about something he had done, and decided to go to Confession.

He said, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I feel terrible because during World War II I hid a Jew in my attic."

The priest said, "But that's not a sin! I wouldn't feel bad about that if I were you!"

"But I made him agree to pay me 50 zlotys for every week he stayed."

The priest said, "Well, I admit that certainly wasn't the noblest thing to do, charging the man to save his life -- but you did save his life, after all, and that is a good thing. Don't worry about it too much; G-d forgives."

The man said, "Oh thank you, Father, that eases my mind. I have only one more question to ask you: Do I have to tell him the war is over?"

The opening phrase of this week's portion, Mishpatim, begins "And these are the laws you are to set before them." Whenever Torah uses the term "and these," it signals continuity. We just finished hearing the Ten Commandments which were given at Sinai, and so these civil laws were also given at Sinai.

What’s the meaning behind this teaching? Why would we think that these laws were not given at Sinai?

Most of the laws in this week’s portion are logical and rational. Many societies in all eras have accepted and protected them. Murderers and thieves are punished: Logical. Don't mistreat widows and orphans: Logical. Give charity to the poor: Very logical.

Yet the Torah emphasizes that they were given at Sinai. Why?

The argument could be made that religious law needs to be received from Sinai, but rational laws can be initiated by man, and so Torah tells us: No! The foundation of logic is the supra-logical (Sinai).

Because there is no true absolute basis for morality if it is created and driven by human logic alone. Anything created by human logic can be destroyed or altered by the same logic. If morality is based on consensus and basic human freedoms granted to us by man-made institutions, those same men can decide to retract those freedoms. “All men are created equal,” the American Founding Fathers declared, because they knew that if the freedom does not come from the Creator, then it cannot be inalienable. If King George granted them freedom, he could choose to take it back.

Do not think these logical laws will hold sway if you perform them only based on your sound rational mind. What was once obvious, with changed circumstances, loses its logical appeal. If the power and validity of a certain lifestyle is merely based on rational logic, rather than on absolute law, do not think that your children and grandchildren will always embrace it. Their personal agendas, cravings, social pressures, and instinctive desires for fun, might manipulate their minds to begin thinking otherwise.

Let me illustrate this with a story.

In Halbershdadt, Germany, a Jew by the name of Mr. Hirsch was dealing with copper. He had a big business. In the year 1871 there was a war between Germany and France. It broke out on Shabbat. On Shabbat morning he received a telegram. He didn’t open it. Every hour he received another telegram but only after Havdalah at Shabbat's end did he open all the telegrams. He read: The German government needs copper and we’d like to buy copper from you. We offer you 10,000 marks for so-and-so much copper. Since he hadn’t answered because it was Shabbat, the next telegram said, “We offer you 20,000 marks.” By the end of the Shabbat, the German government was so desperate they were offering him 150,000 marks. He opened all the telegrams and on Sunday morning he went to the station he had to contact. He told them, “To tell you the truth, I didn’t ignore the telegrams because I didn’t like the price. I just didn’t open them because it was Shabbat. I'll sell you the copper for 10,000 marks.”

The government was unable to believe Mr. Hirsch's honesty. The story went all the way to the German Kaiser, who asked this man to come before him. The Kaiser said to him, “I have never met anyone as honest as you. I guess that when you keep Shabbat, it makes you an honest person. First of all, let me have the privilege of paying you 150,000 marks, because you deserve it. We want to give it to you. Beyond that, I would like to make you a Baron.”

Everybody has heard of Baron Hirsch.

This, then, is the lesson of Mishpatim. Always remember that the root of the law must be G-d’s will, the order of the Creator and sole master of the universe. Then the law will endure under all conditions, and then we will ensure that a law undermining truth and human dignity will be challenged and cut down.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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