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MISHPATIM 5779

MISHPATIM 5779

After the drama of receiving the 10 Commandments at Sinai in last week’s Torah portion, this week the Torah begins to lay out the mitzvot of the Torah, introducing us to 53 laws called mishpatim—which are a good chunk of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Mishpatim are laws that are not ritual in nature, but nevertheless help us live a godly life: civil laws, criminal laws, laws of torts, accidents, and other things, which, in most cultures, are considered civil laws. In Judaism there is not distinction between civil laws and ritual laws. How you treat another is just as important—or more so—than what you eat.

This morning I’d like to speak about what do we do when we think no one is looking which is highlighted by one of these laws. Let me illustrate with 3 cases from the Talmud Pesachim (113a) as illustrated by Rabbi Yehoshua Rubin in his book, Spiritual Awakenings paraphrasing the Talmud:

Case #1: I was standing outside the house of prostitution, trying to decide: Should I go in or not? I said to myself: I am not married, and so I won’t be breaking trust with anyone if I go in. Right? And besides, I am in a strange city where nobody knows me, so there is no risk of being embarrassed. What should I do? Should I go in or not? 

Case #2: A man finds a wallet on the street. He opens it up and lo and behold, it contains hundreds of dollars and it also contains the name and address of the person who lost it. What should he do? The man who found the wallet is a very poor man. He is hundreds of dollars in debt. And so he is sorely tempted. If he keeps the cash and throws away the credit cards, no one will ever know. Should he or shouldn’t he? How will he decide?

Case #3: The man gets up early in the morning, much earlier than he usually does. He says to himself: “I have to get to the field before anyone else arrives so that I can tithe the harvest before anyone else is there.” The reason he wants to do it early is that no one else will see him do it because he wants to carry out the mitzvah of tithing without getting any praise or publicity for it. He wants to do it simply because it is a mitzvah, and so he has to hurry and get to the field before anyone else is around.

The actual text of the Talmud reads: Rabbi Yochanan says: There are 3 people whom the Lrd praises every day: The bachelor who lives in a large city and does not sin with women, the poor person who finds lost property and returns it to its owners despite his poverty, and the wealthy person who tithes in secret without publicizing his behavior.

Rabbi Rubin points that these 3 people are loved by Gd with a special love because what they have in common is that they all face temptation when no one else is around. In all 3 cases they must have been sorely tempted and—after wrestling with their conscience—they said, “No,” and this is why Gd has a special love for them and why He is so very proud of them.

It’s hard enough not to sin when people are watching you. It’s a lot harder to resist temptation when there’s no one around to catch you. And this is a lesson found in our Torah reading when it speaks of the distinction between a robber and a thief. Before I tell you what the Torah says, which do you think is the worse crime, robbery—to hold a person up with a gun and take his/her money…or theft—to slip into a house when no one is around and steal his/her money?

You might argue that the robber is worse than the thief. After all—if he uses a gun or a knife—he may be endangering the life of his victim as well as taking his property. And yet the Torah teaches that the thief is worse than the robber! The penalty for robbery (Lev. 5:20–26) is simply to pay back what you have taken from him. But if you slip into his house when no one is around, you have to pay back double for what you took (Ex. 21:37–22:3). Why is the thief worse than the robber?

The Talmud (Bava Kama 79b) explains: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackai says: “The thief treats the honor of the slave as equal to the honor of the owner.” By this he means: that when the slave or the owner or anyone is around, he doesn’t rob because he’s afraid of getting caught. But when no one is around, he’s not afraid. In other words, he doesn’t care that Gd may be watching. He’s more afraid of a human being than Gd! Therefore, the one who steals when no one is around is punished double, whereas the one who robs is only punished once.

What is Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackai saying? That to sin in public is bad, but to be afraid to sin in public and yet not be afraid to sin in private is worse, because it shows contempt for Gd who sees everything. And so Gd takes pleasure in those who do mitzvot and those who avoid sinning—even in private, even when there is little likelihood that they will be caught—simply because they revere Gd. These are the people who hear Gd’s Voice inside them even when they’re alone.

How do we train ourselves to hear the Voice of Gd within us? We live in an age when Gd’s Presence is not obvious or clearly felt, by most people? The answer, Rabbi Rubin suggests, is by learning how to be alone with ourselves long enough to hear the Voice within and to respond to it.

We live in such a noisy world. I’ll prove it to you. When you walk into your home and no one’s there, what do you do? If you’re like most people, you’ll immediately turn on the tv or the stereo. In our cars, it’s the radio, Spotify or Pandora. When you call an office and you’re put on hold, out comes music so we should not have to be alone for even a millisecond. We cannot even take a walk and be alone with ourselves as we walk around with earpods in our ears—oblivious to the world around us. Is it any wonder we can’t meditate or hear the Voice of conscience or the Voice of Gd trying to get through the noise all around us?

Therefore, let me suggest, that, when we’re faced with temptation, when we’re confronted by a difficult moral choice, that we ought to look for a quiet place where we can be alone…turn off the cell phone, the tv and the computer…so that we may hear what the Voice inside is trying to tell us.

The truth is, we’re all geniuses at rationalizing. We’re all experts at persuading ourselves that what we want is what Gd wants, that what we want to do is what Gd wants us to do, that what we think is good for us is good in Gd’s eyes. Therefore, we need to withdraw into ourselves and listen to the Voice within so that we may know what we really ought to do.

So the next time you find yourself standing outside a house of ill repute in a strange city where no one knows who you are…or the next time you find a wallet and you’re tempted to take the money and throw away the credit cards…or the next time you’re tempted to make a generous gift to the synagogue and you’re not sure whether you should do it anonymously so that only Gd will know or whether you should do it in public so that everyone will know and admire you for what you are doing…may I suggest that you remember what it says in today’s Torah reading and in Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackai’s comment on it: The thief is worse in Gd’s eyes than the robber, because he denies and defies Gd, as well as people, whereas the robber cares only about whether people are watching or not.

And may I suggest that, if you ever find yourself in one of these situations…that you remember the Talmud says these 3 are especially loved by Gd because they don’t sin—even when they could get away with it.

My friends, whenever we stand at moral crossroads in our lives…whenever we stand before the temptation to do something which is wrong, but which we might be able to get away with…let us withdraw from all the noise around us and listen to the Voice inside. For if we really listen, then we’ll know what to do or not to do and Gd will bless us for it. Amen!

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