Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Parshas Mishpatim 5775, February 2015; Justice

Plato's Republic is an entire volume of ancient Greek thought dedicated to portraying Socrates' efforts to define justice, piety, and virtue.  In a remarkable parallel to Jewish thought, Socrates had himself succeeded in determining that the reason that many individuals do evil to others is because they do not have the knowledge and understanding of what good is; he also seemed to believe that ultimately good would come to the good and evil to the evil, even if not in this world. This is why he was able to show such equanimity when others mocked him, and ultimately even agreed calmly, even demanded, to suffer the death penalty for his crimes of impiety and corruption of thought.
Showing respect, appreciating effort, and generally treating  each other well after a fourth grade chess match.

How sad indeed that had he only consulted with a Torah scholar he could have had an answer, simply bound up in this parsha!  For the Jews were taught the mishpatim at the foot of Har Sinai (Shemos Rabbah).  When the Talmudists stated in Avos, "as a result of three things is the world sustained: truth, justice, and peace," they had no questions as to what constituted those three things. It was very clear in the law.

Not only is the law clear, it clearly applies to all. The first mishpatim G-d told Moshe to teach to the Jews were those regarding enslaved servants, as if to make clear that halacha does not differentiate between rich and poor; the law is identical for all, and human justice is absolute, not relative to one's station (Divine justice, of course, does differentiate among people's abilities and potentials, as G-d can truly know what an individual is capable of).

This week's haftarah, from Yirmiyahu, makes abundantly clear that Jewish justice must be maintained at all times, that virtue is found in following Jewish law and thought (particularly relating to interactions with one's fellows, above one's relations with G-d and individual commandments like prayer or study), and that piety has significant benefits while impiety in the form of breaking any commandment brings punishments. Almost all of the people of Yehudah had been taken into captivity by the Babylonians, and Jerusalem was on the verge of falling. King Tzidkiyahu exhorted the people to return carefully to the laws regarding Jewish enslaved servants, as he felt that it was the sin of illegally holding servants longer than the Torah's mishpatim allows that was bringing Divine punishment on Israel.
Not Jewish justice, just a funny 4 year old learning about
other historical conceptions of justice which have fallen by
the wayside. Jewish laws have been maintained for thousands
of years.

We must remember at all times that prayer, study, tehillim, and daily practices that reflect only on our relationship with G-d are indeed mandates. Yet it is the laws of our behavior with other people which truly determine whether we are just, pious, and virtuous.

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