Office of the Chief Rabbi

D’var Torah: Parashat Mishpatim

In his D’var Torah this week, the Chief Rabbi teaches us that we shouldn’t just be concerned with our immediate surroundings – it is our duty to be mindful of the overall interests of all members in our society.

According to Torah law, someone who is guilty of theft, must pay back double what he has stolen. In Parashat Mishpatim, we are provided with two exceptions: if one has stolen a sheep, one must pay back four times the value of the sheep, and if one has stolen an ox, the fine is five times the value.

The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim explains the rationale behind these draconian laws, relating to sheep and oxen. He tells us that when we are dealing with crimes which are more prevalent in our society, then the Torah instructs the Beit Din to be more strict, in order that these rules should serve as a strong deterrent.

‘We are dealing with crimes which are more prevalent in our society, then the Torah instructs the Beit Din to be more strict, in order that these rules should serve as a strong deterrent’

There were two very good friends who were High Court judges and every Sunday afternoon, they would go out fishing together. One Sunday afternoon, they chose a location they had never fished from before, on the banks of the River Thames. They had a lovely afternoon together and then, when they were packing up all of their gear, one of them pointed to a notice they hadn’t seen before. On the sign it said ‘Fishing Strictly Prohibited’, and they realised that they had both been in contravention of the law.

So, being judges, they decided that they would try one another. One of them sat on a rock, the other one stood in front of him. The one on the rock said “You stand before this court of law, charged with the offence of fishing illegally. What do you plead?” And the other one said “Guilty!” Then the one on the rock said “This court passes down a fine of £50 which you must pay to a charity of your choice”.

And then they switched round. And this time the one on the rock said to the other, “I pass a sentence upon you of £100 that you must pay to a charity of your choice!” The one standing in front said, “Excuse me, my Lord, but I can sight a precedent in law, when actually the fine was only £50!” “That is true” said the one on the rock, “however, there has been a little bit too much of this recently and so we have to be very strict – we have to send out a message to our society”.

That is exactly the point that the Rambam is making, that the Beit Din has a responsibility, not only to pass down law with regard to the person standing in front of them, but also to protect society and to send messages to society.

‘Like a Beit Din, we should not just be concerned with ourselves and those in our immediate surroundings, but in addition, we must be mindful of the overall interests of all of our society’

There emerges from here a strong message for each and every one of us. Like a Beit Din, we should not just be concerned with ourselves and those in our immediate surroundings, but in addition, we must be mindful of the overall interests of all of our society.

Parashat Mishpatim inspires us to build and to maintain strong, cohesive and healthy societies.

Shabbat Shalom