Beit Midrash

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The Right View of a Jewish Legal System


Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli zt"l

Our Rabbis learned important lessons from the opening to our parasha, "And these are the statutes ..." (Shemot 21:1). Rashi learns from "and" that just as the previous principles were received at Sinai, so were these laws of monetary conduct. The Tanchuma (Mishpatim 3) relates to this the pasuk in Tehillim (147:19-20): "He told His words to Yaakov ... He did not do so for every nation and statutes He did not inform them."
As a rule, the Satan and the nations chide Bnei Yisrael about the chukim (laws without a clear reason). They leave us alone about the mishpatim (monetary laws), which seem understandable because they are similar to their laws. Yet, we can appreciate our system of justice when we see the form of justice that the nations employ (against us) in the UN. Our justice is intrinsically true, not like the humanly mandated justice to which some pay lip service.
Hashem "spoke" the Ten Commandments in such a manner that "shamor" and "zachor" and, actually, all of the commandments were said at the same moment. Why was there a need for such a miracle? The reason is to show that each commandment includes everything, and interconnected laws are intrinsically different from independently standing ones.
The pasuk says that "the land He gave to mankind" (Tehillim 115:16). However, if this "possession" emanates from "to Hashem is the land and all that is in it" (ibid. 24:1), then we will know that the world is only ours after we bless Hashem for that which we get from it (Berachot 35a). If we understand that we need permission from Hashem for our things, then we understand that if we steal food and then make a beracha on it, we are blaspheming Him (Bava Kama 94a). In effect, if we are not sure if something is stolen, then we do not know if it is "kosher" for us. Such is our view of monetary law.
Our monetary law system is different in another way. Moshe was told to place the laws before "them," that is, every individual Jew. Who has to be aware of the law of Jewish servants? Every individual, not just beit din. Each person has to be careful not to mistreat another. A dayan can rule only based on what he knows, and sometimes someone who is not correct can win with a lie or based on the rule that only with full proof can one extract money. Indeed, every individual has to be his own judge - to realize his obligations.
One should be afraid of receiving money he might not deserve. One can and should be concerned about his own needs. However, it is more important to strive that all the money he obtains is legitimately his and serves his internal, spiritual needs.
This is why we teach Jewish children monetary law (see Bava Kama 30a and the mishna, Bava Batra 10:8). The greatest wisdom is not being overly cunning regarding monetary concerns and not hiring sharp lawyers to gain undeserved advantage. If we do not see things this way, then we have adopted "mishpatim" in the manner of the nations. If this is the case, we are perverting justice, which should be a measuring stick of morality, and turning into a tool for accumulating wealth at all costs. The Torah expects more of us.
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