By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
“Ve’eileh hamishpotim asher tosim lifneihem.” Rashi explains that just as the laws that appeared in Parshas Yisro were delivered to the Jewish people at Har Sinai, so were the laws relating to financial matters, included in this week’s parsha, also presented to the Jewish people at Har Sinai.
Just as the laws that are spiritual in nature and pertain to the relationship between man and G-d are Divine, and just as the laws that defy human comprehension are Divine, those that can be considered common sense, such as the laws governing financial interactions, are also of Divine origin and were delivered to man at Sinai.
The laws demanding scrupulous honesty were given by the Creator to form the fabric of our daily life. Reduced to its core, the philosophy behind why we must lead honest, upright lives is because Hashem commanded us to do so, not because a healthy society depends on honest interpersonal dealings. This conviction must guide our observance of the laws pertaining to financial integrity.
If laws governing our behavior with our fellow man fluctuated according to an individual’s or society’s preferences, the entire moral and legal tapestry would unravel. As we have seen many times, unscrupulous leaders justify their lawless behavior with corrupt rationales, dragging down society along with their regimes. Dishonest people ensnare others in their traps and cause financial loss, ruin and pain. Good people become tainted as they begin using elements of subterfuge to advance ambitions and goals.
People can rationalize any behavior and convince themselves and others that they are acting properly when they clearly are not.
If the law is not Divine and immutable, it is open to manipulation. As the posuk warns in Parshas Shoftim, “Ki hashochad ye’aveir eini chachomim.” Bribery blinds. There is no greater temptation to cut corners with the law than the allure of quick financial gain. Jealousy of another’s financial success is one of the most powerful – and destructive – motivators for dishonesty. Were it left to man to act ethically according to his own perceptions of what is proper, there would be plenty of room for him to inject his own corrupt assumptions into his dealings.
When ethics and morality are viewed as holy as kashrus, kedushah and taharah, the urge to wheel and deal and to legitimize that behavior is somewhat curbed.
Torah is not open to human manipulation. As the repository of the Creator’s wisdom, it is a closed book. It is timeless and unchanging. Stealing is stealing, in every age, in every corner of the world. Lying and engaging in subterfuge to gain an advantage, even over a dishonest person, is an aveirah and inexcusable, no matter how strong the rationale to engage in the activity is.
Just as an ehrliche Yid understands that there is no way to kosherize an animal that has not been properly shechted, he knows that he should not benefit from money that was not earned honestly. An ehrliche Yid is repulsed by improper gains. They have no appeal to him.
Man-made laws are subject to human limitations and to the spirits of the times of the people who formulated the laws. Laws reflect the period in which they are written. Systems of jurisprudence subject to human intervention are constantly evolving with the times and are manipulated by changing perspectives. Only the laws of the Torah are eternal, for they were fashioned by an omniscient, omnipotent Creator. The laws were created for the betterment of man and with all his needs in mind. They represent the blueprint for a utopian society, necessary for the functioning of a perfect social order and unaffected by whatever perspectives hold sway at any particular time.
Witness the current brouhaha over the release of the Republican memo pertaining to actions of certain FBI leaders and agents who were attempting to derail President Trump. Bureaucrats who hate Trump knowingly used a concocted pack of lies, known as a dossier, to initiate secret government surveillance and cause a special prosecutor to investigate the president’s ties with Russia.
There never were any ties with Russia and there never was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It was all a lie, compiled for the Clinton campaign and sold to the country by desperate Democrats and a compliant media.
America is a great country, but many are unsure today whether the Justice Department and the FBI are motivated by justice or by other considerations.
That is what happens when people with inherent prejudices are put in charge of pursuing justice. They revert to basing their actions upon their own common sense and end up far from the truth.
In fact, anything devised by man is subject to human bias and thus cannot achieve absolute truth or immortality. Empires rise and fall in a matter of centuries, as the corruption that creeps into the core eventually collapses the entire structure.
Perhaps this is the reason why the parsha opens with the laws of eved ivri. At the time the Torah was given until modern times, a feudal system dominated most societies. People would enslave the weaker and less privileged among them, treating them brutally and inhumanely.
Long before compassion and humanity became universal values, the Torah revolutionized the world with its mandates of charity, kindness and justice. The laws forcing slave-owners to treat their slaves better than themselves were not bound by the temperament of the times and were much more progressive than anything man could have conceived when they were delivered on Har Sinai. They remain so today.
One of the ways a Jew demonstrates his belief in the Divine source of the Torah’s laws of jurisprudence is by refusing to turn to secular courts for adjudication of legal issues.
From the parsha’s opening pesukim, Chazal derive important guidelines for how Jews are supposed to resolve their disputes. One who uses secular courts instead of botei din commits a chillul Hashem, for through his actions, he demonstrates that he doesn’t believe that the Torah’s financial laws come from the Creator.
By patronizing secular courts, he puts on display his belief in society’s ideas of what is fair -ideas dictated by human reasoning that are flawed, arbitrary and tragically limited.
The posuk states (23:7), “Midvar sheker tirchok – Distance yourselves from falsehood.” The truth must be our benchmark. Fidelity to the truth is what defines us. We are not to compromise the truth in order to protect our positions or prop up our public image. We must do what is correct al pi Torah, without making cheshbonos.
Each generation draws its strength from its forbears who were moser nefesh to transmit the Torah in its entirety to their descendants. While each generation faces its own individual trials and tribulations, the admonition of midvar sheker tirchok, along with every single law in the Torah, is eternally applicable.
There is no justification for lying or dishonesty in any facet of our lives. If we want to be good Jews, we will make no distinction between any of the laws of the Torah in terms of the time, effort and diligence we expend in fulfilling them.
The test of our emunah and bitachon is whether we follow the laws of Mishpotim and Choshen Mishpat with the same care that we demonstrate with respect to the other mitzvos handed down at Sinai.
One of the questions a Jew is asked by the Bais Din Shel Maalah is whether his financial dealings were honest. Ehrlichkeit in finances is the defining trait of a yorei Shomayim. We all know stories about people who forsook fame and fortune because of a breath of impropriety that might have tainted some of the activities required of them.
For people of this towering spiritual caliber, the sole authority and guide in any money-related endeavor is hilchos Choshen Mishpat. No other considerations enter the picture.
Fear of failure, competition, and the vast amounts of money necessary to get by in our world lead people to abandon the laws of Sinai. It starts with small lies, with minor acts of deception, and it snowballs from there. Self-deception rules the day, as half-truths and white lies launch the downward spiral. Before long, the individual caught in this vicious cycle becomes an unscrupulous scoundrel. Yet, due to the power of rationalization, he still views himself as a pious person, worthy of honor and emulation.
By contrast, a person who knows that Choshen Mishpat is equally a component of shemiras hamitzvos as Orach Chaim and Yoreh Deah is someiach bechelko, because he knows that whatever he owns is rightfully his, and he can therefore enjoy it. Envy and greed have no power over him, because his driving force is to give his Creator nachas by obeying the Torah’s mandates. He knows Hashem treasures him and values his sacrifices for truth.
One who utilizes chicanery and thievery to advance himself and his interests is denying the rules the Creator built into the universe by which man can progress in life. He is denying that one who leads his life according to the halachos of the Torah will lead a blessed and successful life. By choosing to go down an unscrupulous path, he is broadcasting his denial that one who abides by the Torah will enjoy prosperity and blessing.
Such a person portrays a major deficiency in his spiritual outlook. His actions carry a denial of the fundamental belief that Hashem guides the world and mankind, and allots to each and every individual his respective needs, as we say on Yom Kippur, “Kevakoras ro’eh edro, maavir tzono tachas shivto, kein ta’avir vesispor vesimneh vesifkod nefesh kol choy vesachtoch kitzvah lechol briosecha…”
Honesty is not only the path to a guilt-free, successful and fulfilled life. It is a testament to our devotion to Torah and mitzvos and our emunah and bitachon. Being honest and forthright not only makes us better people and more capable of getting along with others socially and functioning in a civil society. It makes us better Jews.
The memoirs of Knesset member Shlomo Lorencz are replete with anecdotes and encounters that underscore the acuity and foresight of gedolei Yisroel.
In his book, Bemechitzosom, he discusses the time an Israeli army chaplain posed a question to the Chazon Ish concerning a soldier who was engaged to be married. The army schedule precluded him from arranging any time off for a wedding, the chaplain said.
The chosson was finally approaching a furlough, which would allow him to celebrate his long-awaited matrimony. However, his break fell during Sefirah, the period in the Jewish calendar when weddings are not held.
The chaplain asked if an exception could be made to hold the wedding during the days of Sefirah. He argued that if the wedding couldn’t be held during Sefirah, it would have to be delayed for a very long time. Perhaps an exception to the general rule could be made.
The Chazon Ish responded that he could approve having the wedding during Sefirah, but with a caveat: It could be held on any date except the fifth of Iyar. Rabbi Lorencz, who witnessed the exchange, was surprised by the p’sak. He made a face, but the Chazon Ish simply smiled back at him.
The great gaon explained that the chaplain’s question wasn’t really about Sefirah. It was about Zionist legitimacy. The Chazon Ish perceived that the question was a sly attempt by the Zionist leadership to help achieve acceptance of Israel’s national Independence Day as a Yom Tov. They hit upon this question as a way to produce a “heter” from the revered rabbinic figure for weddings to be held on that day, despite the injunction of Sefirah, a de facto admission that the 5 Iyar Independence Day had halachic status of a Yom Tov.
Lorencz recounted in his diary that the chaplain was very upset with the Chazon Ish’s ruling that the wedding may be held on any day of Sefirah except the fifth of Iyar. His sad face revealed his true intentions and the penetrating wisdom of the Chazon Ish.
In a hesped on the Steipler Gaon, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik explained that Noach believed in Hashem’s word and didn’t doubt it. However, Noach made cheshbonos and reasoned that, ultimately, Hashem would have mercy on his creations and not bring the flood. Therefore, he didn’t enter the teivah when he was told to. For this reason, he is called a “kotton b’emunah,” because we are required to follow the word of Hashem and not make cheshbonos.
We are to follow halacha and the precepts of Chazal and the rabbinic leaders of each generation. If the halacha is to engage in a certain action, then that is the way we should conduct ourselves. We should not engage in calculations and justifications for deviating from our mesorah, even with the rationale that such actions will help achieve a greater good.
It was upsetting to read the statement of the Orthodox Union allowing shuls with female clergy to remain within its umbrella and contribute to the fiction that despite their deviation from halacha and mesorah, Open Orthodoxy is Orthodox, when it clearly is not. It is distressing to note that the statement utilizes language intended to mollify those who seek to follow the example of the Open Orthodox movement pertaining to the involvement of women in synagogue life. By leaving the women clergy in place and not demanding their immediate ouster and other improvements in some of the shuls, the statement can be seen as a victory for those who engage in calculations and justifications for deviating from our mesorah and continuously agitate to push the envelope.
We were let down by the statement, as well as by the silence with which it was greeted by the broader Orthodox community.
We expected better.