לזכר אפרים יצחק יעקבסון ז”ל – איש תורה ומעשה
The role of Parshat Mishpatim in the rabbinic tradition points to the significance of the “mitzvot bein adam l’havero – the mitzvot governing the relationship between people” for Jews. God’s reputation is founded upon how His followers observe these commandments – how they interact with others and their concern for them. In particular, the Torah focuses on the needs of the disadvantaged.
The Torah does not deny the existence of the poor and needy. It does not envision their disappearance but is determined to care for their needs and dignity. One such mitzvah governs the relationship between the lender and the impoverished borrower:
If you should surely take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for it is his sole covering, it is his cloak for his skin – in what can he lie? And, so when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:25-27)
The lender might be justifiably tempted to hold on to a pledge as a guarantee that he or she will be repaid. This law attempts to maintain the dignity of the poor person in the awkward situation where the person is so poor that his single garment is his only possession and the threat of repayment is real.
In the following midrash, the author makes a fascinating and brilliant theological analogy to make those who might be morally oblivious to the plight of the poor realize what it might be like to be denied something crucial to one’s existence:
If you should surely take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge. (Exodus 22:25) – The Holy One, blessed be He, said: How much you liable to Me. You sin before Me and I am patient with you. For your soul ascends to Me every day, each and every evening giving account and is found guilty. Still, I return to you your soul though you are liable to Me. So, too, even though he (the poor person) is liable to you [for his debt] – If you should surely take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for it is his sole covering. (Exodus 22:25). So, too, one thing I have in mind regarding you. If you do not return his pledge (the garment), I will not return your soul, therefore, you should surely return it! And, so when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am compassionate – For he (the poor man) complains before Me: ‘Master of the World, I am a man and he is a man, yet he sleeps on his bed, but where can I sleep?” Therefore, I will listen to him for I am gracious. (Adapted from Tanhuma Mishpatim 16)
One of the first prayers (E-lohai nishama) that a Jew prays each day thanks God for restoring his/her soul in the morning after having returned it to God the previous evening while asleep. The author of this midrash hopes that each of us will appreciate the consequences of not having their soul returned in the morning. Linking this realization to the needs of the poor person who might be forced to sleep without a garment to cover them at night might bring the more prosperous lender to empathize with the needy borrower and do the right thing.
This is a perfect example of rabbinic theology being used for a practical end, namely, reminding us to pray with our deeds as well as with our hearts.