Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

A People of Truth

In the alma deshikra in which we live, truth is a rare commodity. Fiction, deviation, misinformation and half-truths are pervasive in our world. The only way to have a connection to the truth is by following the Torah. Mishpotim, the laws that govern finances, which we study this week, must have a basis in the Torah in order for them to be truthful and just.

In focusing on last week’s parshas Yisro, which teaches us about mattan Torah, and Mishpotim, the parsha that follows, a theme emerges. The drama and glory of Maamad Har Sinai were an introduction to the laws governing how we deal with each other.

The depth of the connection between the two parshiyos is revealed by the Sefas Emes, who explains that “Ve’eileh hamishpotim asher tosim lifneihem” is the natural consequence of “Anochi Hashem Elokecha.”

The posuk states, “…asher tosim lifneihem,” teaching us that even though these laws appear to be rational, Jews are forbidden to adjudicate their disputes in secular courts. Even if the secular laws seem to be the same as those that appear in the Torah, we must know that they are not. There are truths and then there is the Torah’s truth, composed and transmitted by the One whose seal is truth. We don’t live our lives in accordance with social mores and customs of the world around us. We live with His truth only.

A rov was delivering a Gemara shiur to a group of intelligent and accomplished professionals who had no Torah background. Among them were judges, lawyers and professors. They were studying Maseches Bava Kama, when a judge interrupted the shiur. “Look,” he said, “this is very nice and clear, but I don’t know what makes this stuff more special or unique than anything I’ve studied. I guarantee you that if you present to me a dilemma, I can come up with the same answer as your rabbis. Pardon me, but this is logical thought. I can’t detect anything Divine about it.”

“Tell me please,” responded the rov, “what you would do if you came home from work and heard that your eleven-year old son had been playing baseball and mistakenly threw the ball through the neighbor’s window, shattering it? Your neighbor welcomes you by shouting that your dog kicked over a lantern and made a small fire, burning his rose-bush. Everyone is angry at you. How would you resolve it and make things right?”

The judge pondered the question for several minutes. The listeners were eager to hear his well-reasoned response. Finally, he spoke up. “I would apologize to the neighbor about his rose-bush, but an animal is just an animal and I am not culpable. My son, however, is my problem and I would offer to pay for the broken window.”

The rov smiled. “Excellent. But the Torah says exactly the opposite. Your child is a minor, a kotton hamazik, and thus you are exempt from financial responsibility for his actions. But you are responsible for your animal. You are liable for its actions because you are obligated to watch it well. You thus have to pay nezek, depending on the situation.”

The attendees at the shiur burst into spontaneous applause, thrilled by this demonstration that the truth that governs creations is not governed by logic. They sensed that there is a Divine chochmah that guides us. At times, it may be logical. At other times it isn’t. But it certainly is never defined by logic.

This is true outside of the bais medrash, where chochmas haTorah is ignored. The world runs on a form of fiction, a lie that is compelling and enticing and bears all the similarities to the truth. But it is still a lie. The system of justice presents itself as honorific and precise, but all too often we find that the people who administer justice are lacking in fidelity to a just code.

From outside appearances, it seems that the laws are similar, but they are not. There are some things that you think you can accept at face value, but even those are often fiction. The yeitzer hora tempts us with different guises. Some are transparent and obvious enticements, while others are more cleverly devised to fool and entrap us. Societal mores are presented as truths, and those who don’t accept them are made to feel that they are out-of-fashion and irrelevant vestiges from a different time.

America is reeling now. The very face of network news – and nothing is more hallowed than that – has been proven to be a liar who fabricated personal experiences in order to promote himself. One of America’s most trusted journalists simply made up stories and has been telling them for years. Paid $10 million annually to read the news, because of his abilities to present it in a way Americans trust, he was caught in a lie he has been telling since 2003.

Everything about this icon of reliability and truth was perfect. His stories were interesting, his passion real, his expression appropriate – except, well, that what he was saying wasn’t true.

Everyone on his team knew he was lying, as did people involved in the incident, but nobody cared, because he fit the part he was promoted as: Mr. Truth. His network celebrated his first decade of service by posting a grandiloquent retrospect stating, “You build it slowly over time. And what you build, if you work hard enough, if you respect, is a powerful thing called trust.”

He was finally called out for lying about his Iraq experience. The pressure became too much to bear and the man of truth was forced to issue an apology. Last Wednesday night, the proud peacock strutted into the chair from which he addresses millions nightly and tried to fine tune an apology, blaming his lies on “the fog of war.” He explained that he had “conflated” two stories to praise the heroism and valor of enlisted men.

He might have survived in the old days, but in the internet age, by week’s end, he had to “temporarily” go off the air. Still trying to keep his façade going, he wrote, “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.” His bosses had no comment.

It’s all a game. Some people play baseball, some play football, and some play the truth.

In our world, everything is sheker. There is no truth outside of the Torah. Leadership is about acting, about feigning sincerity and compassion, intelligence and presence. Facts and numbers are stubborn things, but they are either ignored or spun by those in power to create and foster the narrative necessary to promote their agenda.

The president trumpeted in his State of the Union message that “Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis.”

What he didn’t say was that the percent of full time jobs as a percent of the adult population is at a 30 year low. The official government numbers don’t count anyone as unemployed if they haven’t looked for a job over the past four weeks. Thirty million Americans are out of work, even more are suffering in low paying or part time jobs, but the big lie persists that the economy is picking up and unemployment is dropping.

The woman running for president, though she still lies about her intentions, was caught in a similar falsity to that of the trusted news anchor when she spoke about her braveness under fire in Bosnia. When video appeared showing that there was no attack, the vaunted secretary of state said that she “misspoke.” She “misspoke” about the attack in Benghazi as well, but, in her words, “what difference does it make?”

It’s a game and everyone plays along. Her husband was impeached and is a known liar, yet he is the most popular politician in this country.

The current president misspeaks all the time, yet it has become acceptable, because that’s the way the game is played. It’s all a game. When he speaks the truth, as he did last week in a most undiplomatic and impolitic way about the murderous Christian Crusades and Inquisition, he was widely condemned for speaking the truth about Edom.

He says that he can’t meet Israeli Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu when he comes to Washington next month, because the administration cannot appear to take sides in the upcoming Israeli election. Yet, that didn’t prevent Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry from meeting with his strongest challenger, Buzi Herzog, over the weekend in Europe. This is the same vice president who says that he won’t be able to attend the Israeli prime minister’s address to Congress about the dangers of capitulating to Iran, because he will be traveling abroad. He doesn’t yet know where he will be traveling, however. But, remember, he is Israel’s best friend, ever.

The same Buzi Herzog who seeks to become Israel’s next prime minister condemned Netanyahu at the international conference he was attending. Whether Netanyahu’s decision to snub the American president was unwise or not, it is an entirely different story to minimize the Iranian threat in order to gain media and Democrat favor. Herzog said in his speech, “As leaders, we must put the interests of our country and our citizens far ahead of our own political survival.” He then proceeded to do exactly the opposite.

The New York Times, in a religion article over the weekend, warned Israel that “Mr. Netanyahu’s apparent alignment with Republicans will erode the support of [the] majority of American Jews who reliably vote Democratic, because they lean liberal on most social and economic issues.”

The media cares deeply about Israel and thus feels an obligation to warn its leaders how to behave and which causes to adopt. The Times article informs that there is a new advocacy group, recently formed to pressure the Israeli chief rabbinate to approve non-halachic religious ceremonies.

So what does one thing have to do with the other? The Jewish Religious Equality Coalition, a new group comprised of Reform and Conservative clergy, as well as Rabbis Asher Lopatin and other neo-Orthodox renegades, is chaired by Dov S. Zakheim, a former Defense Department official. Somehow, that qualifies him to tell Jews how to be Jewish.

“There are two fundamentally linked issues,” says Zakheim. “When you have American Jews who move to Israel and feel they are treated as second-class citizens by an ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, they all have friends and family back at home who hear about it and that discontent and disconnect spreads.

“And the second linked part, which is what got me involved, is national security. While Israel and America do not see eye to eye on every issue, on national security they are two democracies that do see things essentially the same way. If you alienate one pillar of American support, you’ve lost them,” warns Zakheim from the pages of the Times.

Even though the fact remains that Israelis don’t care about this and accept that halachah and Torah are the ultimate guide of the Jewish people, the experts who warn Israel to accept their deviations from tradition lest they suffer dire financial consequences don’t seem to care.

“We know the election is going to be fought on other grounds – foreign policy, economics, the relationship with the U.S.,” Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, tells the Times. “But the voices of American Jews need to be heard, even on what appears to be an Israeli issue that hasn’t caught fire with Israelis. We’ve got to be a consciousness-raising effort with a lobbying arm.”

So, the Israelis don’t care, and thus the issue is bogus, but no matter, they will still insist that people follow their liberal agenda and berate the prime minster and rabbis until their agenda is adopted.

Someone should explain to them that the Torah is eternally true and relevant. We are not affected by today’s trends and fads, for we know that they will not stand the test of time. To compromise on truths is to engage in a fictitious momentary pursuit. To water down what we are and what we stand for to appeal to the likes of the Times and NBC is a foolish endeavor.

The transparent attempts to betray the life-giving vision and mission of the Torah are to untether our vital links in exchange for temporal and fleeting societal standards which are in constant flux.

Alma deshikra means that everything around us is a lie. It’s all sheker. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can have a connection to the truth of Torah. When we recognize that the world is basically fabricated of lies covered by a veneer of honesty, we learn a valuable lesson in how to navigate its roads and avoid its pitfalls.

Anyone whose neshomah was at Har Sinai must learn this parsha and realize that if we study Parshas Yisro and accept the Torah and its truth, but we fail to study and properly observe the laws contained in Parshas Mishpotim, our acceptance of Torah is lacking. Yisro is contingent on Mishpotim. One who doesn’t properly carry out the laws of Choshen Mishpot can neither be a ben Torah nor a mokir Torah. Someone who lacks respect for the property of others is practicing fake religiosity. A deceptive person and those who lack integrity and are generally untrustworthy have essentially not accepted the word of Hashem into their hearts. Those who engage in fraud and disrespect are not only dishonest and uncaring; they have failed in their commitment of naaseh v’nishma.

Sometimes, people neglect or bend the laws of Choshen Mishpot because they place the pursuit of finances above all other values. In so doing, they demonstrate their human frailty as well as a lack of faith in the Divine order. At times, man’s vision becomes clouded. We must endeavor to always be honest and upstanding in our dealings, not permitting our own interests to subconsciously cause us to err.

Rav Chaim of Volozhin once ruled in a din Torah between two talmidei chachomim. The loser was upset with the decision and told Rav Chaim how he felt.

Years later, the rov who lost that din Torah was approached by two litigants who asked him to preside over their dispute. He listened to the two sides and ruled. Later, while reviewing the case, he realized that the dilemma he faced was similar to the one that he and his fellow disputant had brought to Rav Chaim many years earlier. In fact, after studying the sources, he issued the same ruling as Rav Chaim. He realized that years before, he had been wrong when he castigated Rav Chaim.

When he later met one of the litigants, he thanked him. “The din Torah you brought me helped me clarify something and led me to do teshuvah.”

The fellow shrugged. “I don’t remember the case, because it wasn’t real. Rav Chaim Volozhiner paid us and told us what to argue in the din Torah, which he asked us to arbitrate in your court.”

The humbled dayan hurried to Rav Chaim and apologized. Rav Chaim told him, “I knew that you are a talmid chochom but that negius would prevent you from seeing the truth in your own din Torah, so I created this case for you to allow your Torah to speak, rather than your personal interests. Now you see what negius does.”

Yisro has to converge with Mishpotim.

We live in an era when much is made about diplomacy and bridge-building. Certainly, we need to strive for peace and do what we can to work harmoniously with others. But in paying homage to the ideals of shalom, we cannot forget the value of emes.

The Torah that we follow is comprised of emes and its paths lead to true peace. In order to achieve proper lasting relationships and friendships, they must be based on honesty and fidelity to the truth. If we are evasive or deceptive, as charming as we try to be and as hard as we try to mask our differences, we will ultimately fail.

Armed with strength and truth, and guided by Torah, we can build bridges to make the world a better place and prepare it for the coming of Moshiach. By being honest, facing up to our differences and surmounting them, we can reach accommodations that last over time.

Parents of a particularly stubborn child brought him to the rebbe of Piaseczna, Rav Klonymous Kalman Shapiro zt”l, one of the greatest mechanchim in pre-war Poland. The parents described to the rebbe how their son refuses to listen to their instructions.

“Did you try making him see things your way?” the rebbe asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

“Have you tried cajoling or bribing him?” he continued.

“Yes, but to no avail.”

“Well, then,” the rebbe smiled, “you have a young man of truth and tenacity on your hands, and you have the potential to raise the next Chasam Sofer. See to it that you use his firmness well. Fill his world and mind with truth, so that when he wages battles, they will be for the truth.”

We need shalom, but we have to equally value emes. We need great men to embrace others and draw them close, but we also need great leaders who will chart a course of truth and tradition, telling us when battles cannot be settled through compromise.

Without Mishpotim – honesty and uprightness in all areas – there is no Yisro. This means being honest in business, careful with the money of others, and aware of our mandate of how to behave with other people.

The wife of the Chazon Ish ran a small textile business. She once had a disagreement with a customer, who suggested that they ask her husband to adjudicate the matter. They approached the Chazon Ish, who ruled that the customer was right.

Later on, the Chazon Ish sensed that his wife was hurt that he ruled against her. He spoke to her softly and gently. “Tell me please,” he said, “of what value is life if one possesses even a penny that is not his own?”

She was placated by her husband’s gentle words. They should be our mandate.

Just as life has no meaning without Torah, so is the order of creation interrupted by a lack of mishpot. Last week, when the baal kriah read the Aseres Hadibros, our heartbeat quickened, as we sensed that we were hearing the song of life itself.

This week is no different. Mishpotim is the second half. It is the flip side of last week’s coin and just as critical. Hashem Elokeichem emes. His seal is emes. May we, the People of Truth, act in a way that will allow us to stand proud when the time of truth arrives.




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