Life & Law
This Shabbat's Torah Reading is Mishpatim (Judgements). It contains Jewish laws that regulate business dealings between people. The Torah obligates a person that is negligent to pay for damages that he causes to others. There are rules about loans, about the obligations of a trustee and about many other things that are considered civil law.
Why would the Torah include these laws? Shouldn't the Torah devote itself to religious laws like prayer, kosher and keeping the Shabbat? What not leave civil law to the secular courts?
The answer is that Judaism does not distinguish between religion and civil law. From a Jewish perspective, a person cannot be religious while being dishonest. And a person cannot be absolutely honest unless he is truly religious.
A person that does not believe that we are accountable to a Higher Authority, but thinks of the world as some kind of jungle where only the cunning and fittest survive-will find it difficult to restrain his desires. And a person that prays in synagogue but is dishonest in business is not truly religious at all; his prayer is only lip service.
That is why the Ten Commandments include both the belief in one G-d as well as the laws "Do not murder" and "Do not steal." The two are intertwined.
Even a humanistic and ethical person will find that the Torah's commitment to ethics is more far-reaching than that of a secular society. A civilised society outlaws murder and robbery because otherwise people will destroy themselves. But as long as one person does not infringe on another, civil law has nothing to say.
The Torah's laws do not only define rights-they also define obligations. We observe these laws not only so that we don't destroy each other, but because by keeping the Torah's laws we give our lives higher meaning and connect with the Creator.
There is beautiful teaching of the sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. He notes that the Torah is called "Torat Chaim," the "Torah of Life" and "Torat Emet," the "Law of Truth."
The Rebbe explains: Every society has laws. Their laws are the product of life. The particular needs and conditions of life in each society give rise to sets of laws that allow people to cope with their particular needs. That is why legal systems vary from one society to another and change over the centuries. People make these laws, so those laws are not absolute truths; they depend on the varying and changing needs of society.
But the Torah's laws are not generated by life. On the contrary, life itself flows from keeping the Torah's laws, because by keeping the Torah we bond with the Creator, the source of life. That's why it's called the Torah of Life. And just like G-d is absolute and eternal, so are His laws called the "Torah of Truth." It is forever relevant, in all times and in all places.
The role of the modern rabbi has changed dramatically from that of his predecessors. A rabbi today is expected to be a therapist and social worker, an entertainer and comedian. Traditionally, though, a rabbi was an authority on Jewish law. He not only had to be wise and knowledgeable but also pious, so that his legal decisions would be firmly based on Torah.
Years ago, a Jewish man travelled a long distance from his religious home, to visit the rabbi of a modern, secular Jewish community. He explained that he wanted the rabbi to judge a difficult case. His family had suffered severe financial losses and poor health. He had grievances against G-d and he asked the rabbi to judge between him and G-d.
The rabbi was surprised, "Certainly, there is a scholarly rabbi in your own town. Why did you need to travel to me?"
The visitor replied, "The rabbi of my town is G-d-fearing, so how could he judge impartially between us? But I've been told that you have no fear of G-d, so I know I can trust you!"