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Mishpatim: Quest for Happiness in the Context of the Parsha

Published on Friday March 12th, 2021

After receiving the Torah and hearing the "Ten Commandments" last week, we move on to our current parsha of Mishpatim, delving on how to observe the law we received at Mount Sinai in greater detail.

The parsha’s text is particularly abundant in Mitzvot (53 commandments are mentioned)). It is an introduction to the general framework that must be maintained among the Jewish People in the area of social relations.

In our quest to find happiness within the context of the Parsha, we would like to dwell on a law which bears particular significance. The next verse: "If you see the erring ox or donkey of your enemy, be conscientious to bring it back to its owner. If you witness the donkey of your enemy succumb under its burden, beware not to abandon it. Stop and help your enemy unload it." (Shemot 23: 4-5).

These verses have been subjected to many commentaries. The most well-known highlight two principles covered by these laws. On the one hand, the question begs men not to remain indifferent to the suffering of animals ("Tzaar Baalei Chaim"). On the other hand, the Torah reminds us of the obligation to fight against the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination and avoid cultivating hatred, bearing a grudge, and even exerting revenge against an "enemy" (R. Munk, R. Sacks).

This concern is so fundamental in our tradition that the Sages of the Talmud tell us that should we witness both events simultaneously, i.e. the donkey of a friend and that of an enemy both collapsing under their burden, we must begin by helping our enemy. Indeed, this is an obligation to defeat our evil instincts of revenge and hatred, which could lead us to rejoice over our neighbor’s misfortune.

Interestingly, the noble goal of refining one’s soul attributes is not taught through moral principles or meritorious admonitions, but through concrete examples; in settings transpiring in everyday life that instruct men on adequate behavior.

A recurring theme in our holy tradition focuses on man’s acts and not only on the thoughts he cultivates in his mind. Let us remember this statement: "Naasei Venishma, We Will Do and We Will Understand", which earned the Jewish people the merit of receiving the Torah and of being “doubly crowned by God", as beautifully expressed by the Masters of the Talmud.

This statement is very critical because it gives precedence to action as opposed to reflection. And Hashem admits that "only the angels knew this secret”. Otherwise, man is naturally prone to reverse this order of priorities and disqualify whatever has not been previously analyzed by the rational mind.

Our Parsha opens a new perspective: it isn’t the intellect that drives the heart. It is a man’s actions. The Torah avoids delving on the disastrous consequences of cultivating hatred between men, or on reminding us of the prohibition to seek revenge and hold grudges. Our job is above all to help a fellow man in distress. This act will open our hearts and penetrate our minds much more profoundly than many moralizing lessons.

Significantly, our verse uses the metaphor of an enemy. The Sages of the Talmud teach that the term "enemy" refers to one of the names of the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. This is a compelling novelty because it does not turn the Yetzer Hara into a repulsive entity or an inevitable emergence of fatality, but as an adversary that must be fought face to face. How do we lead this fight? Our Sages quote this verse from King Solomon: "If you see your enemy is hungry, give him food, if you see that he is thirsty, give him something to drink" (Micah 25:21). According to the interpretation of the Sages, the food and drink in question are not tangible but refer to the study of the Torah, which is often compared to sustenance and water.

As we may have often witnessed, the Yetzer Hara draws its vitality from a man’s feeling of lack, frustration or incompleteness. It perceives "the void" that troubles a man and tricks him into believing that the key to human happiness lies in finding the missing part. The Yetzer Hara might first appear as a brother, perhaps even as a friend. But it gradually transforms into an adversary, and finally, an enemy.

The fight against the Yetzer Hara, man’s enemy par excellence, is fought with the aid of simple but very effective tools: the study of Torah and the practice of Mitzvot. The Maharal of Prague reminds us that only the Torah can succeed in this area because it is the only authentically perfect creation in the world. It can penetrate deeply into the recesses of the human soul and transform a man; it holds the key to human happiness.

This is the reason that the Torah does not only compel a man to meditate and reflect, but also to act. And it also escorts and guides man through the practice of Mitzvot, by teaching him how to act concretely. By supporting thought with action, the Torah effectively penetrates the entire human psyche, including the man’s body, mind, heart and finally, his soul. Gradually, man becomes congruent with the essence of his being and finds his own means to achieve happiness and fulfillment. He may then be able to fulfill this maxim of Rabbi Nathan: "Who is a strong man? One who turns his enemy into a friend ... "

Shabbat Shalom!

Jérome TOUBOUL - © Torah-Box Account

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