When G-d Sends You Help … Don’t Ask Questions.
A lady hurried to the pharmacy to get medication for her sick daughter. When she got back to her car and found that she had locked her keys inside.
The woman found an old rusty coat hanger left on the ground. She looked at it and said, “I don’t know how to use this.” She bowed her head and asked G-d to send her some HELP.
Within 5 minutes a beat-up old motorcycle pulled up, driven by a bearded man who was wearing an old biker skull rag. He got off of his cycle and asked if he could help.
She said: “Yes, my daughter is sick. I’ve locked my keys in my car. I must get home. Please, can you use this hanger to unlock my car?
He said, “Sure.” He walked over to the car, and in less than a minute the car was open.
The lady hugged the man and through tears said, “Thank You, G-d, for sending me such a very nice man”
The man heard her little prayer and replied, “Lady, I am NOT a nice man. I just got out of prison yesterday; I was in prison for car theft.”
The woman hugged the man again, sobbing,
“Oh, thank you, G-d! You even sent me a Professional!”
Our parashah, as per its name “Mishpatim,” meaning “laws,” is full of statutes, many of which have served not only as of the basis of the Jewish civil law and procedure but for the civil law systems of the entire Western Civilization.
Indeed, many laws can trace their origin to our parashah: What happens in a case of murder or in a case of robbery, labor laws, what happens when one person’s property damages someone else, what if the damaged party is a human being, and so on. Not only do we find the laws themselves, but also how to adjudicate them: the role of the court, the role of oaths, the prohibition on accepting bribes, and the demand for truthfulness on all sides.
When I was in Law School, they tried to teach me that the basis for American (and English and Western Society) law was the English System common law. This was at the same time 40 years ago when I was first studying Talmud. Yet every new area of the law we learned I saw in my Talmud class in the morning. The English common law was formed starting at around 1200. The Jewish Torah law was 2500 years older. You figure it out.
The Talmud teaches the principle of Majority rules.
The scriptural anchor for this principle is: “You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong – you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute, incline after the many (rabbim)” (Exodus 23:2).
This verse and the principle of following the majority has a most dramatic expression in the Talmudic story known as “Akhnai’s Oven” (Bava Metziah 59b). The heart of that story is a description of a bitter dispute among all of the scholars in the Beit Midrash (study house) and R. Eliezer alone. At the climax of their disagreement, a heavenly voice is heard: “A heavenly echo emerged and said: “What do you have against R. Eliezer? The law is according to him in every case!” The heavenly echo decides that the law is rightly in accordance with R. Eliezer’s opinion. This should be the end of the discussion, the end of the story. However, the reaction of the protagonists is not to accept the heavenly decree, rather oppose it: “R. Yehoshua stood up on his feet and said: It is not in heaven!” and thereby asserts his opposition to the heaven’s decision.
The Talmudic narrator isn’t satisfied with R. Yehoshua’s reaction and seeks an explanation of his words. What does it mean to say that, “It is not in heaven?” R. Yirmiyah’s words are brought in response: “R. Yirmiyah said: For the Torah was already given on Mt. Sinai and we don’t heed heavenly echoes, as it is already written in the Torah, ‘incline after the many.'”
R. Yirmiyah’s response contains a number of stages. First, he distinguishes between two distinct periods of time: before and after the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We can see our parashah and its laws serving as a watershed moment between these two separate time periods. What distinguishes between these two time periods? The next stage explains, “We don’t heed heavenly echoes,” emphasizing the word, “we.” R. Yirmiyah is explaining that “we,” the ones who inhabit the Beit Midrash, “we” who control the judicial process, “we” who live after the giving of the Torah, “we” don’t listen to heavenly echoes. Maybe others, living in a different period of time, under different conditions would, but definitely not we who are here in this Beit Midrash at this historical moment. Definitely not us.
This brings us to the next stage, which essentially answers the question of what to do and how to decide if we aren’t heeding heavenly echoes. How can we finalize decisions? This third component of R. Yirmiyah’s statement is an expansion on a quotation from the verse from our parashah that we quoted above: “as it is already written in the Torah, ‘incline after many.'” Meaning, now decisions are made through majority rule – we follow the majority. Decisions aren’t finalized by fiat of a Divine voice, rather by numbers, by counting the individual human voices and seeing where their greater numbers are.
The transition from following a heavenly echo or Divine declaration to following the majority of the opinions represented in the court is a significant shift of the location of decision making from heaven to earth. But this is not the only significant shift that R. Yirmiyah’s statement describes. It is also a shift from momentary or incidental ruling – each question has a unique Divine answer – to a jurisprudential process. Another fundamental difference between the “before” and “after” is, who is making the decision, as this is seemingly a shift from the Divine to humanity.
However, when R. Yirmiyah substantiates the shift from human beings by quoting a verse, he essentially anchors his position that one need not listen to heavenly voices by quoting a heavenly voice! According to R. Yirmiyah, the principle of following the human majority rule is Divine, it is Sinaiatic; the independence from God in the future was granted by God at Sinai. Thus, in place of the heavenly voice or echo comes the human process, the process of those who are but an image of God. Yes, it is not in heaven, but only in the narrowest sense.
How much more difficult is it to maintain your opinion, maintain your integrity, when it is in opposition to not just one opinion, but many, and in particular when one is a lone voice against evil. A close reading of the verse forces us to recognize how difficult it is, in fact, to not join up with the majority to do what is wrong.
The positive Talmudic reading of “incline after the majority” and “do not follow the majority to do evil” create a composite statement. Through it, the emphasis at the center of the story on this principle shifts from being a simple positive statement of following the majority, to one that carries with it echoes of the warning that sometimes one cannot and may not do or say what the majority determines. Even though it can be especially hard to stand up for your own opinion, stand up in the breach for what is right.
So enjoy this Parsha and see how the rules from G-d have formed the basis for Western Civilization.