Despite the general impression that this week’s parashah focuses almost exclusively on torts and damages, the fact is that much of Mishpatim deals with the interpersonal side of human relations, even when no physical harm has been caused.
And whoever kidnaps a man, and he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death. And one who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. (Shemos 21:16–17)
In his commentary on the above pesukim, Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, suggests that “stealing people is actual destruction of the dignity of a human being. Towards a father and mother one does not need to go so far, even expressing the desire for their ruin incurs capital punishment.” Subsequent concepts continue along the theme of empathy and interpersonal consideration, for such matters as not accepting a false report, not serving as a false witness, not following the majority for evil purposes, and not oppressing a stranger.
However, the pattern shifts abruptly in the second half of the fifth aliyah. There, the pesukim transition to discuss Shemittah, Shabbos and the three primary festivals. The aliyah concludes with the seemingly incongruous prohibition of cooking meat and milk together. “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (ibid., 23:19).
At first glance, this last dictate would appear to have no relation to anything that had appeared beforehand. Certainly, it does not have any obvious connection with the general theme of mishpatim, the laws that govern interpersonal relationships and civic responsibilities. What is it about this mitzvah that justifies its selection as the culminating message of Mishpatim? And how do such concepts as Shemittah and Shabbos/Yom Tov serve as a proper bridge between this particular prohibition and the many laws which precede it?
Perhaps the answer lies within the powerful symbolism suggested by the precept. The imagery of cooking a child in its mother’s milk is most striking. Milk serves as the lifeline of a young child; it is through its mother’s personal nourishment that a kid manages through its most delicate stage of infancy. To “cook” it in that milk is to somehow use the very life source in a way that is most damaging and destructive to the youngling.
Laws are created to maintain order, to allow for healthy, productive societal function. In a Torah society, they go one step further, providing a context through which we are to view each other and our duties to our neighbors and our Maker/Lawgiver. When the Torah speaks of not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, it is telling us to refrain from manipulating a particular dictum by using the “milk” that sustains it in a manner that is not only inconsistent with its intended purpose but runs directly counter to it. This is true whether your goal is self-service or even leveling the social playing field.
Neither shall you glorify a poor man in his lawsuit (ibid., 23:3). You shall not bestow honor upon [the destitute man] by deciding in his favor in his lawsuit, saying, “He is a poor man; I will decide in his favor and honor him” (Rashi).
So often, we find ourselves in situations where we rationalize our decisions and conduct based on the ends that they provide. The pull of profits, social standing or social justice may motivate us to place a personal spin on a concept, to understand justice in a manner that fits neatly within our own agendas. This is where Shemittah, et al. come in.
The mitzvos of Shemittah, Shabbos and the Chagim teach us, each in their own way, that we are not the final arbiters of life, sustenance and integrity. Despite our many efforts in the field or the workplace, we are reminded that there is a higher Source, one that ultimately provides for us and determines the outcome of our labors. We are told to step back and to rest, to reflect upon the special relationship that we enjoy with our Maker. And we are also directed to make His Will ours and allow for the timeless principles that emanate from His Word to guide us in every circumstance.
Ethical leadership is a form of leadership that emerges from strong, timeless values. It exists when leaders tap into a reservoir of principles to govern how they approach their position and the many challenges that come with it. At a time when prominent politicians and other leaders are once again in the public spotlight for all the wrong reasons, such as political payback and misappropriating federal dollars for self-aggrandizement, we must once again circle back to the enduring values of Mishpatim as a way of gaining clarity and direction so as to live a most fulfilling and complete existence. “Rav Yehudah said, ‘He who wishes to be pious must fulfill the laws of Nezikin’” (Bava Kama 30a).
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is a writer, teacher, executive coach and leadership aficionado who lives in Passaic, NJ. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.