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Parashas Mishpatim - Honesty in the Workplace

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Parshas Mishpatim

The parshah begins v’eilah hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem – these are the laws which you – referring to Moshe – should put before them – meaning klal Yisrael. Why does it begin with v’eileh? What is this parshah a continuation of?

Rashi explains that this is a continuation of the last parshah, in which the aseres hadibros were given. Just like those commandments were directly from Hashem, the laws detailed in parshas mishpatim, were also from Him.

The Mizrochi says that just like the aseres hadibros were given with kolos ubrakim, the mishpatim in this parshah was given in the same manner. The Ohr Hachaim questions this explanation and says that it means that just like the 10 fundamental dibros delivered at Har Sinai were accepted with trepidation and awe, we must accept the more ‘mundane’ laws that govern everyday life in parshas Mishpatim in the same way as it is equally important as the to commandments given at Har Sinai.

On Yom Kippur, during Neilah, we thank Hashem for the opportunity of this awesome day, on which we can cleanse ourselves from the iniquities of the past year – lema’an nechdal me’oshek yadeinu, - that we can cleanse ourselves from the aveirah of theft. Why does this phrase sum up the glory of Yom Kippur? What does the aveirah of stealing specifically have to do with kapparas avonos?

The Chafetz Chaim points out that this indicates how fundamental and critical to the human character is being honest in business. I pondered on this Chofetz Chaim and realized its importance. The kitrug of theft is a barrier to closeness to Hashem, as the passuk in Tehillim says: mi ya’aleh b’har Hashem, umi yakum bimkom kadsho? Neki chapayim uvar levav – who can ascend the mountain of Hashem and who can go up to His holy place? One who has clean hands and purity of heart. So that’s why we thank Hashem for cleansing us from this Kitrug- separation and allows us to become close to Him. This is the parashah of Mishpatim.

The passuk in Mishpatim sets out a scenario in which an item is stolen from the possession of someone responsible for watching it. The owner and the item’s guardian, the ba’al habayis, come to the beis din and the latter swears under oath that he was not the one who stole the item. The passuk says ‘venikrav ba’al habayis el ha’elokim’. In this context, ‘Ha’elokim’ means the beis din, but R’ Nosson Adler, the Rebbi of the Chasam Sofer, explains that it can be understood to mean that if he can honestly say that he did not steal the item and prove his integrity, the ba’al habayis can be nikrav el ha’elokim – close to Hashem.

This is also highlighted by the fact that the passuk uses the word venikrav. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say veyavo – that the ba’al habayis should come? The passuk uses this word to emphasize the fact that honesty is a prerequisite for kirvas Elokim.

Reb Medel Mereminuv beautifully explains this passuk that a person who studies Torah all day becomes close to Hashem. How does someone who works become close to Hashem? The answer is by dealing business in the manner set forth by the Torah in this week's parashah, with integrity and honesty. And that is the explanation of why the passuk stresses that the ba’al habayis become close to Hashem. Because his way of becoming close to Hashem is by physically following the Torah.

When the passuk refers to the property of the item’s owner, it says b’meleches re’eihu. Meleches usually means work. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say b’chefetz rei’ehu – the object of his friend?

An object that belongs to a person is a result of melachto – his work. But in reality, it’s from Hashem, so what looks like robbing a human being is really stealing from Hashem. That’s why it’s impossible to be close to Hashem if one has stolen.

The temptation to steal stems from a distance to Hashem. Someone truly close to Hashem understands that if something is meant for him, he will get it and nobody can take it away from him, so there’s no need for him to steal.

Every client that comes to you, every business deal that you make, every trade in the stock market is directed from Hashem. So when one wrongly takes from someone else, he is stealing from Hashem. Hashem now has to go and return that item to that person. That’s why one cannot be close to Hashem as he steals because he is stealing from Hashem.

We have such an opportunity to be close to Hashem with every deal one makes to see it's from Hashem and can live his entire day with Hashem.

In “Drush” we can say even deeper, that the word re’eihu which means friend, can also mean Hashem as many lean by “veahavtah lereiecha kemocha” to be Hashem. To explain here, b’meleches re’eihu, when one deals with business without integrity he is touching on the work of Hashem. He is moving pieces of the puzzle that Hashem set forth.

The scenario described by the Torah above is one of someone who watched an item for free.

The Torah brings another scenario – that of an item being stolen under the watch of someone who was paid to guard it. In this scenario, the Torah says “shevuas Hashem tihyeh beineihem”- the swearing of Hashem should be between them. Why does the Torah not say venikrav ba’al habayis el ha’elokim in this scenario as it does in the scenario of one who watches for free?

The one who watches and is paid has to produce evidence that absolves him of responsibility because he was paid to do a job. The one who watches for free, by contrast, could object to being brought to beis din for a favor that he did for someone else for no pay. The Torah says that in this case, the person is going lifnim miyeshuras hadin and is, therefore, nikrav el Ha’elokim.

Some people ask me why they have to deal with integrity in business when others around them are ‘cheating the system’, so to speak. I try to explain to them not to look at it as a burden but a beautiful opportunity that one gets to live a lifestyle of yid the way Hashem wants us to. Emes is not a burden. It will only bring success. They may not get the business deal that the less honest people get, but they get kirvas Elokim. Hashem will love them and watch over them.

The Pesikta points out that there are are 60 mitzvos that are related to Pesach, and there are 60 halachos that are related to choshen mishpat in Parshas Mishpatim. This needs explanation as Pesikta is not just keeping records of mitzvos. We can say, the same way we understand the severity of the halachos of Pesach, the same way that we know we must purge every crumb of chametz, with added minhagim and chumros aplenty – we must have the same attitude to hilchos choshen mishpat. Even a crumb of sheker must be avoided at all costs.

At the end of Parshas Mishpatim, we have a continuation of the chronology of ma’amad Har Sinai. Parshas Yisro was the mi yaaleh b’Har Hashem, but Parshas Mishpatim is the hard part – the nitty-gritty, ‘mundane’ details of the Torah’s governance of everyday life. It’s the mi yakum bimkom kadsho.

The Machatzis Hashekel was called the shekel hakodesh. Chazal say that at first, Moshe didn’t understand it, but then Hashem showed him a coin of fire, and then he understood. What does this mean?

I once proposed the following pshat to R’ Shmuel Berenbaum which he enjoyed very much. Perhaps Moshe had difficulty with the juxtaposition of the words ‘shekel hakodesh’. Do we regard money as holy? Then Hashem showed Moshe ztorahdige gelt, because eish represents Torah, and this money was the money that was discussed in parashas Mishpatim and Bava Metzia and Bava Kama. Then Moshe understood how one can have shekel hakodesh.

I was once walking behind Rav Ruderman and Rav Gifter in camp Torah V’das. Rav Gifter related to Rav Ruderman that when Reb Baruch Ber would talk about the kurkuvin ( the gizzard of the animal) he would call it the “heiligeh kurkuvn”. Rav Ruderman enjoyed this very much. The kurkuvain became Heilig because it was discussed in Torah.

I once saw a letter sent to my grandfather by a friend, asking his advice on whether he should proceed with a less-than-glatt business deal. My grandfather responded, ‘I’m surprised that you can even ask me such a question. We both sat together as talmidim of the Chafetz Chaim, and he instilled in us the core message of the importance of yashrus in business. The Chafetz Chaim himself paid for a letter that he received where the postage had not been paid for, which was ta’us akum, and from the cruel Russian regime, no less. And you ask me about this not-quite-honest business proposition?’

The Gemara in Shabbos says that after 120, the first question a person will be asked is if he dealt honestly in business – nasata venasata be’emunah. The Gemara in Sanhedrin says that the very first question a person will be asked is ‘did you learn Torah?’. We can understand why the first question would be whether he learned Torah. Why would there be an opinion that holds that the first question would be if he dealt honestly in business?

Business can be Torah if it’s torahdige and in accordance to Parshas Mishpatim. It’s one and the same question.

The Karlsburger Rav says that we daven ‘halichos olam lo, al tikrei halichos ela halachos.’ Why do we say halichos in the first place, then? Because if you want someone’s halichos – his everyday actions – to be olam lo, to have a kiyum, you should follow halachos.

The passuk says that Hashem gave us the mann to test us, hayelech besorasi im lo, whether we would follow His Torah. Parnassah is a test on the whole of Yiddishkeit Paranassah is difficult will we follow the Torah?

When the Gemara talks about a person being asked nasata vensata be’emunah, the first nasata is spelled nun, sin, alef, taf, and the second is spelled nun, saf, taf, the first one meaning dealing, and the second meaning giving this is the concept of negotiation in business. Nun, sin, alef can also mean to lift up. A person will be asked, did you use your business dealings to lift yourself up in ruchniyus?

At the end of the parshah of Marah, the passuk says im shamoa tishma lekol Hashem, vehayashar be’einav taaseh, veha’azanta kol chukav – if you listen to Hashem, and you do what is straight in His eyes, and you listen to His mitzvos. What does vehayashar be’einav taaesh mean? The Mechilta says that it means to deal with integrity in business. If you have that, then you have kal haTorah kulahkol chukav.

R’ Mendel of Riminov was asked how it can be that children are so well-behaved when they are younger and learn so well, but then when they get older, they stray off the derech hayashar? What are the pitfalls in which they stumble?

R’ Mendel answered that if the money that their fathers earn is not kosher, the food bought with that money is also treif, and we know very well the detrimental effect that treif food has on the neshamah.

The Midrash Talpiyos brings a story about Chanoch the shoemaker: every stitch he made, he would be meyached yichudim and say Baruch Shem kevod malchuso l’olam va’ed. R’ Yisroel Salanter explains that this doesn’t mean that he was inhabiting a different planet while he repaired shoes. It means that he was makpid with every stitch that it should be of the highest quality, so as not to cheat his customers out of their money. He personified lo shalach yado bimeleches re’eihu. That was how he was meyached yichudim and mekadesh Shem Shamayim – by working with the utmost integrity and honesty.

The Imrei Emes says that if someone has not dealt honestly in business, all the Torah that he learned will not help him. That’s why the question of nasata venasata be’emunah comes before the question of kavata itim latorah.

The shochet of Salant came to R’ Yisroel Salanter, saying that he wanted to give up his job because the responsibility of the kashrus of the town was too much for him. R’ Yisroel asked him what he would like to do instead if he quit as a shochet. The shochet responded that he would do something easier, like opening a store. R’ Yisroel responded that there are far more potential aveiros that one can transgress by dealing in business than in dealing with shechitah. A shochet who chas veshalom doesn’t do his job properly is over on the halachah of eating treif. A storeowner, however, has many other aveiros to worry about – stealing, withholding wages from his workers, unfair pricing, just to name a few.

The Me’am Loez says that the word mishkoles – weights used in business – contains the Shem Hashem, to remind a person that shivisi Hashem lenegdi samid, so that he begins the business day with the right approach.

When new weight-measuring technology came out, R’ Shalom Chavush, ztz’’l, spent a long time studying it. He explained to his talmidim that he was trying to find the Shem Hashem in these new scales.

Indeed, there are thousands of ehrliche balebatim today of which the Ribbono Shel Olam can be proud, who are mekadesh Shem Shamayim every day in their business dealings, and personify the message of mi yaaleh beHar Hashem umi yakum bimkom kadsho, neki chapayim uvar levav.

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