Balancing our Mitzvos

V’eileh ha’mishpatim asher tasim lifneihem (Shemos 21:1)

It has been noted that the yahrtzeit of Harav Yisrael Salanter (25 Shevat), the founder of the Mussar movement, traditionally falls out close to the reading of Parashas Mishpatim, and this year his yahrtzeit will be on Sunday. I once heard a beautiful insight into this non-coincidental connection based on Rashi’s first comment in the parashah.

Rashi explains that the purpose of the seemingly superfluous letter “vav — and” at the beginning of the parashah is to emphasize a connection between this parashah and the previous one (Yisro). Just as the previous parashah related the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and it was self-evident that the mitzvos contained therein were presented by Hashem at Sinai, so, too, the commandments contained in Parashas Mishpatim were given at Sinai.

Parashas Yisro contains the Aseres Hadibros, the fundamentals of the Jewish religion which people are naturally scrupulous to perform. By and large, Parashas Mishpatim contains mitzvos pertaining to the conduct between us and our fellow man, laws which are often viewed as trivial and mundane, which causes us to be lax in their observance. For this reason, the Torah emphasizes their Divine origin, equal to that of the “more serious” injunctions of the Aseres Hadibros.

The lifelong mission at which the great Rav Yisrael Salanter toiled endlessly was to convince Jews to recognize that the mitzvos governing our interpersonal interactions are just as important as those pertaining to our relationship with Hashem, and we must be equally meticulous in their performance. Rashi tells us that Rav Yisrael’s thesis is the message of the very first letter of our parashah. It is therefore fitting that his yahrtzeit falls this week, as learning our parashah is a most proper tribute to his legacy.

This message is illustrated by the following story involving a young newlywed who was careful to perform each mitzvah according to the most stringent opinion. Shortly before the Yom Tov of Sukkos, his wife requested that they spend the holiday with her elderly mother. Her husband agreed and on the day before Sukkos, they traveled to her mother’s home, arriving just a few hours before Yom Tov.

As they began to unpack and get settled, he noticed that the sukkah his mother-in-law had constructed in her yard didn’t conform to a Rabbinical stringency required by the great Chazon Ish. Because it was late in the day, he realized that he didn’t have sufficient time to adjust the sukkah in order to meet this opinion, nor did he have time to return to his hometown.

Without any choice, the husband was “forced” to eat his meals and sleep in the sukkah of one of her neighbors. Meanwhile, his wife and mother-in-law were left to “enjoy” their holiday through bitter tears. A prominent Rav who heard about the incident remarked, “He kept the Rabbinical stringency of the Chazon Ish by violating the Torah’s prohibition (22:21) against causing pain to a widow or orphan!”

As piety is often associated with the mitzvos between man and Hashem, it is unfortunately not uncommon for somebody wishing to prove his religious devotion to emphasize this type of mitzvah at the expense of the commandments governing our interpersonal relationships. In reality, Rashi and Rav Yisrael Salanter teach us that true piety requires us to recognize that both categories emanate equally from Hashem and must be balanced accordingly.

Parashah Q & A

Q: The Gemara in Bava Kamma (85a) derives from 21:19 that a doctor is permitted to treat and heal the sick. Why does the Mishnah in Kiddushin (82a) teach that “tov she’b’rofim l’Gehinnom — the best doctors will be punished in Gehinnom” if the Torah gives them permission to practice medicine?

Q: How is it possible that a person told the complete truth without adding or leaving anything out, yet in doing so he violates the Torah prohibition (23:7) against speaking falsely?

A: Rashi explains that sometimes the doctor refuses to treat poor patients. Also, he may accidentally cause the death of a patient. The Maharsha suggests that for this reason, the Mishnah emphasizes that the best doctors will go to Gehinnom, meaning that those who are the best and “know it” will be unwilling to consult with other doctors and will be more prone to potentially fatal mistakes. Harav Akiva Eiger writes that to successfully treat a patient, a doctor is often required to “cruelly”cut off a wounded limb or to lie to the patient about his condition, as the truth could cause his death. In other words, the Mishnah is teaching doctors that what is “tov” — the “good” character traits for them are those that would cause ordinary people to go to Gehinnom. The Pardes Yosef answers that a doctor who believes that the outcome is solely in his hands and not dependent on Hashem won’t pray for Divine assistance. By leaving out the “Refaeinu — heal us” prayer from Shemoneh Esrei, he says only the remaining 17, which is the numerical value of “tov.” In other words, a doctor who says only “tov” blessings is headed for Gehinnom.

A: The Gemara teaches that if somebody knows that the other witness to an event is a thief and therefore invalid to testify, it is forbidden to join him in testifying in beis din. Even though the kosher witness states only the truth about the event that he witnessed, he transgresses the prohibition against speaking falsely. Rashi explains that as a result of his testimony, a false verdict will be rendered. The beis din can rule only based upon the testimony of two kosher witnesses, yet in this case there is only one.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email