Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Mishpatim
To dedicate this lesson

The Law of the Jungle


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Shvat 25 5779
Crash course in world politics: What is the difference, in one sentence, between Communism & Capitalism? Answer: In Communism, Man exploits Man. In Capitalism, it’s just the opposite!

Our Sedra of Mishpatim, coming on the heels of Yitro & the 10 Commandments, begins to detail numerous laws that help define our relationship with our fellow Jew. Yes, the way we act towards, & react to Hashem is extremely important. But at the end of the day - as the Nevi’im preach to us time & again – G-d will judge us most strictly on our conduct Bein Adam L’Chavero. That is the essence & "bottom line" of the diverse 53 Mitzvot in the parsha.

It begins, not surprisingly, with rules on how to treat slaves, or better, indentured servants, most of who could only survive by selling themselves for a period of time. Because we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, we are expected to show much greater care & concern for these people than was typical in past societies. And so, while utilizing their services & serving as their "masters," we have to regard them as human beings at all times.

Within the strict constraints of the Halachot, there were times when the spirit overruled the letter of the law. We know that there is a very strict Torah requirement to return an identifiable lost article to its rightful owner; this is one clear way to demonstrate our connection to others & guardianship for their property. And yet, the Torah will later tell us (Devarim 23:16) that if a slave escapes from a cruel master & takes refuge with a Jew in Eretz Yisrael, he should not be sent back to his former owner. Sometimes, one’s rights are superseded by that which IS right.

I have just returned from staffing a fascinating trip to the Amazon in Brazil. One of our excursions was to a rubber factory located on the edge of the rain forest. The Amerindians long ago developed ways to extract rubber from the rubber trees & from 1879-1912 there was a huge "boom" resembling the gold rush. The proliferation of automobiles created a gigantic rubber market, bringing Robber – or Rubber – Barons, primarily from Portugal & England, to Brazil to export the rubber home. They treated the workers with extreme cruelty & violence, & tens of thousands died from disease or mistreatment in the harsh jungle.

I asked our guide, a descendant of these indigenous inhabitants: "Were Jews involved in all of this?" He answered: "The Jews stayed away from the camps; they moored their boats offshore, & brought goods the workers needed, which they sold at fair prices. They treated us with respect." He then lifted his hand to reveal a ring with a Magen David on it. "Israel is our friend," he smiled. (As a dramatic case in point, Israel immediately sent help to Brazil when a dam collapsed there, causing a massive mudslide that killed dozens in a tragic accident last week, while we were touring the Amazon).

It’s not always easy to do the right thing, especially in the face of profit motive. But G-d bids us never to succumb to the law of the jungle or "tire" from maintaining a high moral standing.
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