Weekly Torah portion: Mishpatim

By Rabbi Yaakov Marks

Rabbi Yaakov Marks

SAN DIEGO — The Torah (Exodus 23:6-11) lists several laws that pertain to judging the disadvantaged. “Do not pervert the judgment of a poor person in his disagreement. Distance yourself from falsehood. And do not take a bribe because a bribe blinds the eyes and perverts the words of the righteous. And do not oppress the stranger because you understand the spirit of the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. And for six years you will plant your land and harvest your crops. And in the seventh year you will not work the land or harvest it and the disadvantaged from amongst you shall be allowed to eat from it.” The Torah uses the prefix “and” to connect all these laws into a set of rules for a judge or anybody who has dealings with a disadvantaged person. These rules are extremely pertinent especially when a person in a superior position of wealth and social standing is dealing with someone who is poor and underprivileged.

Many commentators are bothered by this list of laws. All these laws pertain to a person’s ability to make a proper decision and give honorable treatment of the disadvantaged except for “And for six years you will plant your land and harvest your crops.” How does planting for six years and leaving the land fallow in the seventh have any connection to a person’s ability to judge properly? Why would G-d require such an extreme act of a whole nation not planting and harvesting for a complete year every seven years? How does this help people increase their appreciation of what they already know? We all remember that our ancestors were slaves in a strange land and under terrible duress!

The Sefer ha-Chinuch says the root of this Commandment is to set in our hearts and to help us mentally visualize the oneness of G-d and his creation of the world in six days and that on the seventh He rested. He controls and owns the world and this will impact our behavior regarding our treatment of other people. Do we really need this extreme and repetitive commandment to teach us this lesson?

In the book, Ethics of our Fathers (Chapter 3:9) it says, “Everyone whose actions are greater than his intellectual knowledge his intellectual knowledge will thrive. Anyone whose intellectual knowledge is greater than his actions, his intellectual knowledge will not endure.” Clearly understanding and knowing something without putting it into action is useless. Rabbi Israel Lifschitz  in the  Tiferes Yisrael  on the Mishnah (note 59) says that if good deeds are not put into action and made a habit, our internal physical desires will overcome us like an animal and will eventually cloud and pervert our knowledge. Just knowing alone is useless unless we act repeatedly until our good habits become stronger than our bad desires. Most of a person’s decisions are made from habit.

G-d Who knows the psyche of a person understood that by repeating six days of work and one day stopping, six years of work and one year stopping repeatedly we would ingrain within us the understanding that G-d is in control and no manner how much money or prestige we have every human being is equal and should be treated as such. This would ingrain within us the proper attitude and behavior as a stronger habit than our physical desires and we will thrive. Yes, it might be hard at times and inconvenient, but the results are well worth it. A life of excellence!
How many times have we heard people say, “I know I should lose weight, I plan to.” “I will start eating better when things calm down.” “Exercise is definitely important and I am going to start.” “I understand my lifestyle will probably lead to health problems if I don’t improve and someday I will!” Someday is not on the calendar! If we don’t take this lesson to heart and start acting on ‘I know’ not only will we not obtain good habits, but as the Tiferes Yisroel said, we might even start clouding and perverting our ‘I know’ to validate our bad habits.

May we be blessed with the strength to put our knowledge into action and develop the good habits that will lead us in a life of excellence. May we merit to have the perseverance to put in the work and time to change our ‘I know’ to ‘I AM!’.

Rabbi Marks is a life and health coach, who may be contacted via [email protected].

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