Laws and What Lies Beneath Them

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits
Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits
Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits

Director, LA / Southern California Region

New Israel Fund

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits was previously the Assistant Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.  His commentaries were written during his tenure.  Rabbi Pelcovits is currently the Director, LA / Southern California Region of the New Israel Fund.

posted on February 10, 2016
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, marks a shift from readings characterized by rich and compelling stories, to a section entirely composed of concrete rules and regulations. Among the fifty plus laws we shall read this week, is a deceptively simple commandment that insists,

“When you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? – You will surely help him,” (Exodus 23:15).

This law’s objective, at first glance, seems to be basic. Israelites must treat each other fairly and decently regardless of any personal animosity. Indeed, the verse clearly avoids condemning the emotion of hatred, as long as one’s conduct remains within certain boundaries.

Despite the (seeming) clarity of the Torah here, the Midrash isn’t satisfied with this law and its very rational limits. It tries to imagine what might happen after the account described above, and continues where the Torah leaves off by envisioning these two adversaries speaking to one another while hard at work unpacking the overburdened beast. “Will you move this heavy object over there? Please put that object here, etc.” As they proceed in their task – in this imagined expansion of the Torah’s terse words - the two (former) enemies slowly begin to engage in friendly banter. Finally, as the Midrash tells it, with the task completed, a friendship is born between these two and they head to an inn to break bread together.

Among the many things I love about this Midrash, is its inversion of a classic rabbinic principle, “Don’t disparage a mitzvah done for personal gain, for it might eventually become one motivated by higher purposes - mitoch she lo lishmah ba lishmah.” However here, the original motivation to help one’s rival is not personal gain, but scrupulous attention to the Torah’s laws. It’s only later that these two lose themselves in the act of fulfilling God’s law, and find some pleasure in the commandments. According to the Midrash, it is the joy of friendship, that seemingly humble conclusion to the tale that is the real purpose of the law in Mishpatim. While the Torah never commands us to stop hating, it will insist that we work together with our adversaries, and in that concrete regulation, plant the possibility of community and connection.

As our Torah reading calendar moves from narrative to commandment, may all of us, followers of both American and Jewish legal traditions, be blessed with the transformative experience of living a life governed by just and sacred rules, and may that commitment to lawful living help create deep and rich connections, both within our Jewish community, and in our broader civic life as well.

Shabbat shalom