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The Ethics of Mitzvot - Parshat Mishpatim

By: Danielle Lebowitz

This weeks Parsha, Parsha Mishpatim outlines decrees God instructs of his people, which concludes with Bnei Yisroel responding to Gods covenant “֛ ֥ ֖ ֥ ” “everything God has said we will faithfully do” (24:7). The mitzvot that are commanded in the Parsha are actions each Jew is expected to follow in order to live a full and moral life. God even reminds us of our horrible time in Egypt to ensure we empathize with the other.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (22:20). We learn that when the Torah writes stranger, the word can either be understood as one must treat a convert with respect, or just an outsider such as a non-jew with humanity. Jews are instructed to treat all people with respect and dignity. When in Egypt, before the Egyptians made us slaves, they treated us as outsiders. We had to live outside the city in Goshen, a safe haven for only Jews. The feelings and hostility the Egyptians felt for us stemmed from the fact that they saw us as less than them, as strangers. Their hatred and fear of us continued to haunt them until eventually true oppression became a reality for the Jewish people. The question becomes, why does God need to put this commandment in writing, can’t we just remember how it felt to be outsiders and act the opposite? The answer in no. When one is powerless and then gains power, the first thing they want to do is flaunt it in front of others, and ensure others suffer as they once did. This commandment and most others in this weeks Parsha, are commandments that in-body basic human morality, however, they must be written anyway. In Misilat Yesharim, a very well known Mussar book, it is written “I have written this work not to teach people what they do not know, but rather to remind them of what they already know and clearly understand” (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto). The Mussar movement originated from the belief, that if each person sat alone and truly looked at their lives and actions, they could be able to perfect their character and come to the same morality, no matter which religion they are apart of. So the question arises: is morality self-taught or learned from external sources? Rabbi Levi in Breisheet Rabbah asks a similar question about Avraham, how did he know the whole torah, with no Torah written? He answers that Avraham taught it to himself. This is a proof of the importance of Mussar and self reflection. God gives us mitzvot that aren’t new information or unfathomable, but they do re-enforce the morality each one of us possesses. I challenge each person at the end of each week to reflect on a character trait they want to work on for the week to come. When we pay attention to ourselves and plan to improve, we will all become better people, and one day reach the level of Avraham, who taught himself morality. May God continue to guide us on our quest to become better Jews and people.