“Rav Yehuda said, ‘He who wants to be a chossid should fulfill the laws of nezikin.’ Rava said, ‘The lessons of Pirkei Avos.’ Others say the laws of brachos” (Bava Kamma 30a). One can easily understand how the brachos we recite on the various pleasures in this world and on the mitzvos can lead to chassidus, for they emphasize Hashem’s kindness to us and improve our avodah beyond what is required. Certainly, this is true of Pirkei Avos, which deals with serving Hashem out of love and lifting our spiritual madreigos. But how can the laws of damages and court litigation lead to chassidus?
Ah, but we speak here of the dinim of the Torah, which are G-dly rules that are meant to sanctify and elevate us. “And these are the Mishpotim, the ordinances that you shall place before them” (Shemos 21:1). Rashi says that whenever the Torah says “and these,” it is adding on to what was said previously. Just as the Aseres Hadibros learned in last week’s parsha were given at Har Sinai, so were these laws of damages and monetary matters. Why is it necessary for the Torah to stress this?
The Dubna Maggid explains that everyone understands that without the basic knowledge of the laws of Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, a Yid cannot fulfill the required mitzvos. For this section of Shulchan Aruch contains the laws of brachos, Krias Shema, tefillah, Shabbos, Yom Tov and the entire gamut of Jewish life on a daily basis. We also need Yoreh De’ah regularly for the laws of kashrus and other matters that come up daily. But Choshen Mishpat, seemingly, is designated only for cases when one has an argument over monetary matters with his friend, for two partners who can’t get along, or for someone who caused damage to his neighbor. The average Yid, however, who isn’t particularly involved in finance, might think that its rules are not as important, but this is a gross misunderstanding of the purpose of these laws.
Learning Seder Nezikin and the other halachos regarding monetary matters is not merely a guideline for what to do in case of litigation. It is meant as a medicine to cleanse our neshamos and to elevate us to higher spiritual levels. The proof to this is that we aren’t permitted to litigate in a non-Jewish court even if in a specific case their laws are the same as ours. Why is this so? Why does the Torah insist that these rulings that might have commonality with those of the secular courts remain in a Yiddishe bais din?
If the mishpotim were only a means of keeping law and order, then this question would have some merit, but they are meant first and foremost to elevate us, to cleanse our souls, and to refine our middos. It is another chapter of making us into a G-dly nation, and this was given especially to the Am Segulah, Hashem’s cherished nation, and it applies to all of us, as it is also a mussar sefer.
Years ago, a few melamdim approached the posek hador, Rav Moshe Feinstein, with an idea to teach young talmidim who were just beginning to learn Gemara Brachos instead of Bava Kamma or Bava Metziah in Seder Nezikin. They came with good reasoning. The laws of brachos regarding tefillah are easier to comprehend and are much more pertinent on a daily basis, and the children can identify with them more clearly. The laws of damages and financial arguments were much more difficult and were not that relevant to daily life. It is harder for the talmidim to connect with these rules.
Rav Moshe asked them to please give up such a notion, for there is a mesorah to start learning Gemara with these particular masechtos, because, first and foremost, one must learn to be an ehrliche Yid. That is the first step in bringing us close to Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
Rashi says that Parshas Mishpotim comes right after the mitzvah of building a mizbeiach. This teaches us that the Sanhedrin, which adjudicates cases that came before them, should be located near the Bais Hamikdosh. What is the connection between them? The Bais Hamikdosh was the ultimate place to serve Hashem by bringing korbanos, davening there, cleansing ourselves from sin, and getting close to Him. This is also the purpose of the bais din – not merely to rule on lawsuits and settle arguments, but to spread the word of Hashem and to elevate the people.
In one of the primary pesukim regarding court cases we learn, “If a man shall give money or vessels to his fellow to safeguard, and it is stolen from the house of the man… If the thief is not found, then venikrav baal habayis el ha’elokim, the householder shall approach the court (and swear) that he had not laid his hand on his fellow’s property… al ha’elokim yavo devar shneihem, to the court shall come both of the claims” (Shemos 22:6-8).
The Torah refers to the bais din with the name elokim twice. The Toras Chaim (Sanhedrin 14a) explains that semicha, the ordination to decide matters of halacha, was passed down from generation to generation all the way back from Moshe Rabbeinu, upon whom Hashem bestowed His spirit. Moshe passed this holy ruach onto his talmid, Yehoshua, who passed it onto the Zekeinim and from there it went onwards. This is why dayanim are referred to by the name of Hashem, for “G-d stands in the divine assembly, in the midst of the judges shall He judge” (Tehillim 82:1). Not only the judges, but the litigants who accept the ruling of the judges and learn from them are endowed with the spirit of Hashem. It is also the reason why the original semicha was given only in Eretz Yisroel, because since that is the special land where the holy Shechinah dwells, it rests on those who are ordained to pasken. This is not the case in chutz la’aretz.
An example of how the Torah is meant to rarify us and uproot any residue of bad middos is found in the prohibition of lo sirtzach: “You shall not kill” (Shemos 20:13). The Torah has a broad view of what constitutes spilling blood. Although the death penalty applies only to someone who actually murders, there are numerous deeds that fall under the category of murder. For example, embarrassing someone is tantamount to spilling blood (Bava Metziah 48b), as is withholding pay from a hired worker (Bava Metziah 112a). Other variations of these prohibitions include not providing food and safety for travelers, ruining someone’s livelihood, ruling in matters of halacha when unqualified to do so, and refraining from ruling when one is qualified.
If lo sirtzoch was merely a means of keeping law and order, then all of these prohibitions would not fall under this category. But the Yiddishe lo sirtzoch is meant to sensitize us to the needs of others and to elevate us in becoming a G-dly nation. This is why it is so broad and inclusive of many branches.
A talmid returning from yeshiva for bein hazemanim came to shul and greeted his rov, Rav Shimon Schwab. The rov, in their conversation, asked him what masechta they were learning in yeshiva. The bochur answered, “We are doing Bava Kamma.” To which the rov countered with, “You are doing Bava Kamma, but what is Bava Kamma doing to you?”
The laws of the Torah are meant to impact us, to illuminate within us an awareness of the needs of others.
This kedusha and sensitivity and worry about harming others were quite evident in the actions of our gedolim. The Chofetz Chaim was once walking in the street and noticed a printed piece of paper lying on the ground. Thinking that it may be shaimos, he picked it up, but realizing that it wasn’t, he let go of it and moved on. A few moments later, he returned, bent down, and picked up the paper again.
Someone observing this asked him why he did this. He answered, “At first, I thought that it had words of kedusha on it, so I picked it up. When I realized that it was just plain print, I threw it back down. But upon further reflection, I realized that the moment I picked it up, it became mine. Now that I threw it back down, it dawned upon me that others who would pass by would also think it was shaimos, and I would be causing them to bend down needlessly to pick it up. This is like leaving a stumbling block in public. What difference is there between causing them to trip over a stone and causing them unnecessary bother?”
In his younger years, because of a lack of parnassah, the Chofetz Chaim decided to acquire a cow which would produce the family sustenance by selling its milk. This was no small undertaking. It took a while to acquire a cow without horns to prevent it from goring other cows or people. He was meticulous in keeping it locked up when it wasn’t watched so that it wouldn’t eat food that belonged to others.
Once, he left his home in Radin for a while for the nearby town of Vashilishok, where he could spend his time isolated in a bais medrash, learning by himself. One day, he went out looking for someone going back to Radin, as he had a letter of utmost importance to deliver to his rebbetzin. He found a wagon driver going there, gave him the letter, and begged him to please deliver it immediately upon his arrival, adding that it was of great importance that she receive it before the upcoming market day. He emphasized that if it gets there late, the letter would lose its significance entirely.
The wagon driver promised that he would do so. On the way, his curiosity was aroused. Why was it so urgent that the letter arrive before the market day? And why would it lose its importance if it arrived after that date? The baal aggalah came to the conclusion that the Chofetz Chaim was privy to an insider’s trading scoop. He found out about certain merchandise that would be most sought after, and its price would skyrocket, bringing the investor huge profits. This was probably why he wanted the rebbetzin to receive the letter before the market day, so that she would buy a huge amount of this item. If so, thought the wagon driver, he, too, wanted to find out this secret so that he could also become rich.
He opened the letter, anticipating that it would bring him a fortune. Imagine his disappointment upon reading the message: “Since the market day in Radin is approaching and people from all over are bringing their produce in wagons, sacks, and baskets, it is of utmost importance that the cow be locked up in its stall the entire day, so that it won’t chalilah eat even a bit of the produce or hay from the wagons of others, especially those of the goyim, for a ben Noach is not mochel even less than the worth of a perutah and we will transgress the issur of gezeilah. This was the insider’s information of a fortune, the acquisition of Olam Haba…not what the wagon driver had in mind.
How blessed we are to have such a Torah that elevates and purifies us. And how fortunate we are to have such tzaddikim throughout the generations to relate their deeds, to absorb their lessons, and to emulate them.