Be a Mensch!
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Mishpatim (literally, laws or rules). The vast majority of the Torah text that comes before this parasha is a continuum of stories about the origins of the people Israel. This includes the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the exodus from Egypt. However, in parashat Mishpatim we are presented with a long list of laws, most of them civil ones.
The parasha opens with the following verse, “These are the rules (mishpatim) that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). The word mishpatim is translated here as “rules.” In the rabbinic language, mishpatim is distinguished from chukim. Although both words can be translated as rules or laws, the sages explain that mishpatim are the rules that govern the relationships between people. In this category one finds the laws against theft and murder. Even if the Torah had not specifically commanded us to observe these laws, human beings would have deduced that these laws are necessary to have a civilized society.
On the other side, chukim are the rules that the logic finds hard to understand or rationalize. They are God’s decree. Examples of this type of Mitzvah are the prohibition of mixing wool and linen in our garments and the mixing of milk and meat food products.
Parashat Mishpatim deals mostly with mishpatim, rational or civil laws, and that is why in its first verse God orders Moses to transmit these laws to the Children of Israel. Regarding this verse, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765 – 1827, one of the key leaders of Hasidic Judaism in Poland), said, “The Torah comes here to teach us that we must place the ethical commandments (mitzvot bein adam lechavero) before the ritual commandments (mitzvot bein adam lamakom). The reason for this is that derech eretz kadma l’torah, literally, an ethical and responsible way to live precedes Torah (based on Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:3).
I could paraphrase this last principle as, “First be a mensch, then you do the rituals/then you study.” (you can try your own paraphrasing!). Being a mensch is not commanded: You will find no specific law about that in the Torah. But without being a mensch the performance of our laws is lacking. Derech eretz kadma l’torah. Decency, integrity, honor, rectitude comes before Torah. Torah cannot be without derech eretz!