By Rabbi Michael Schwab
“How can we ensure that Jewish ideals—such as protecting the downtrodden and most vulnerable people in our society—emerge from the abstract and find expression in our daily lives?” In a wonderful dvar Torah on Parshat Mishpatim, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin poses this critical question. Our weekly portion, Mishpatim, gives us a powerful answer: through sincere commitment to following Jewish law. Law, which guides actual daily behavior, is the key vehicle for the tangible expression of the ideals and ethics we hold dear as Jews. For example, the Torah states in our Parsha, “When you lend money to My people, to the poor person with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him.” (Ex. 22:24). This Torah verse takes the oft repeated values of having compassion for the downtrodden and for treating all people as fellow creations of Gd made in the Divine image, and gives them meaningful pragmatic expression. Here the poor are referred to as “My people” — under the personal protection of Gd. This is a clear statement that those who are poor are not to be treated as lesser, but as equally important and deserving of proper treatment. Therefore, giving money to the poor is not a hand-out, a favor, or even a loan, but a required righteous act that fulfills the Divine principles of justice and compassion.
Riskin points out that Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, in his famous work, Or Hahayim, expands on this idea in a radical way. He writes that it is likely that everyone would agree that ideally all people would have an equal share in the resources of the world and that such a share would be more than sufficient for each person’s needs. Alas, that is not how human history has played out. But, the principle still directs our attitude towards our money, and therefore our treatment of it. Based on this verse and others, he claims that those who have more resources are merely holding those resources on behalf of Gd for those who have less. So, when we “lend” a poor person money it is not a true loan, as that money is actually part of their fair share. The affluent, therefore act as Gd’s sacred agents in the just allocation of Gd’s resources. As Riskin states, “This is the message of the exodus from Egypt, the seminal historic event that formed and hopefully still informs us as a people: no individual ought ever be owned by, or even be indebted to, another individual. We are all “‘owned by’ and must be indebted only to Gd.”
This is a foundational truth of our traditional legal system, which, therefore, gives us specific laws and actions that provide for the needs of the downtrodden and enslaved, the poor and the infirm, the orphan and the widow, the stranger and the convert. From this perspective, not only must we value Jewish law in order to preserve our ethical principles, but it is crucial that we ensure that Jewish law remains true to its ethical foundations in the way it is practiced each and every day.