The Higher Standard
This portion of the Torah is called "Mishpatim", which means judgements.
Our Sages divide the Commandments into three categories: those which
signify our special relationship with G-d, those that are not understood
by us ("statutes"), and judgements - laws that every nation realizes must
exist in order for a group of people to function as a society. This last
category includes prohibitions against murder, kidnapping, stealing,
cheating in business, and even setting up a court system.
Why did G-d place the Torah portion of "Mishpatim," which contains more
laws than any other, immediately following the revelation at Sinai?
Answers Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki: in order that we realize that just
as the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai, so were all the others - even
those that appear totally rational under a man-made system.
It is traditional in Jewish schools -- and has been for centuries -- to
launch young boys into the sea of Talmud not at the first chapter of
Brachos, the first tractate, but with the second chapter of Bava Metziah,
part of the order concerning monetary damages (there are six orders of
Mishnah). The chapter is called "Elu Metzios" -- "these found objects are
yours, and these must be announced." The Mishnah in that chapter discusses
whether various objects are identifiable enough to require the finder to
attempt to return them to their owners. Unfortunately, the objects used
there are such items as a ring of figs, not immediately familiar to
today's middle school student.
Some educators came to Reb Moshe Feinstein zt"l and asked: why not change?
The first tractate of Brachos discusses when a person must read the Shema
in the evening. It is immediately relevant to every boy!
He replied that they must not change, but continue to teach "Elu Metzios"
first. A child, he said, must understand that "these found objects are
yours, but these you must announce [and return to their owner]" is also
Torah. The Torah is not just ritual.
Furthermore, it is all-encompassing, requiring a truly rigorous standard
of justice and ethics. Just consider the contrast between "these found
objects are yours, but these you must announce [and return to their
owner]," and what I learned in public school: "finders keepers, losers
May we strive to meet the Higher Standard!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2004 by Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis - Torah.org.