Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct
In memory of our grandparents, whose yahrzeits fall this week:
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen Fredman (10 Tevet)
Chaya bat Yitzchak David Fredman (15 Tevet)
Shimon ben Moshe Rosenthal (16 Tevet)
By their grandchildren and great-grandchildren,
Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family
Shiur #11: The Obligation of Mishpat, Careful Scrutiny of One's
After spending a number of lessons developing the
basis for the obligation of performing acts of chesed, kindness, we must
take note of the fact that the Jewish tradition of morality is much more
extensive. The prophet Yirmeyahu
informs us that God desires not only chesed; He upholds two other ideals
as well, and He expects His handiwork to do the same:
Thus says God:
Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,
Neither let the mighty man glory in his might,
Let not the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him that glories glory in this — that he
understands and knows Me,
That I am God, who exercises chesed,
For in these things I delight,
These verses, which the Rambam chooses to conclude
his Moreh Ha-nvukhim with, describe the unique Jewish tradition of
morality and the emphasis that God places on the ideals of mishpat
(justice) and tzedaka (righteousness), along with chesed. We have already discussed the term
chesed, which in its simplest form means kindness. The importance of kindness, and
especially the uniquely Jewish understanding of kindness, is an undeniable part
of Jewish tradition. But what is the
meaning of tzedaka and mishpat; why does God desire them as much
If Yirmeyahu were the only one to mention these
terms, then we could afford to give a simplistic explanation, but these terms
reappear in some of the most important verses describing the Jewish tradition of
morality. The mention of these
ideas of tzedaka and mishpat, sometimes in place of the more
natural term chesed, seems to indicate that a proper definition and
precise classification of all three of these actions is essential for
understanding the unique Jewish tradition of Divine morality.
These terms appear in numerous other places —
notably, in our daily prayers, in the blessing of justice, we refer to God as
“the King who loves tzedaka and mishpat.” King David is referred to as
performing “mishpat and tzedaka to all” (II Shmuel 8:15).
In Makkot 24a (see lesson #01), the Talmud
cites the prophets who based the mitzvot of the Torah on certain
overarching principles; it is mishpat that appears in the top three and
the top two, while chesed and tzedaka are mentioned only once
The prophet Mikha came and established them [i.e.,
the fulfillment of the six hundred thirteen commandments] upon three [ethical
requirements], as it is written: “He has told you what is good and what God
demands of you: only  to do justice,  to love kindness (ahavat chesed),
 and to walk humbly with your God” (Mikha 6:8)…
Yeshayahu came again and established [the mitzvot]
upon two, as it says, “So said God:  Guard justice and  perform
righteousness” (Yeshayahu 56:1)…
Once again, these three terms reappear as central
themes, but mishpat is mentioned in both verses underscoring the Jewish
tradition. But what is mishpat,
and why is it so central?
We may find an answer to this in the Torah’s
description of the heritage of our patriarch Avraham. Most would assume that Avraham’s
legacy is rooted in his extreme kindness and hospitability, his unique form of
chesed for which he gains renown.
However, after the Torah’s description of Avraham’s hospitality towards
the three wayfarers (Bereishit 18:1-5), God describes Avraham’s
uniqueness in providing a legacy of tzedaka and mishpat.
(See lesson #03, in which we quoted
the Meshekh Chokhma’s view that this verse is the source of the obligation of
chinnukh, education). God
decides to inform Avraham of his plans to destroy Sodom not only because of his
uniqueness, but also because he will educate his children to live by derekh
Hashem, the way of God, which incorporates righteousness and justice.
And God said, “Shall I hide
from Avraham what I am doing, seeing that Avraham shall
surely become a great nation and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed
in him? For I
have known him to the end
that he may command his children and his household after him
to keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice, to the end that
God may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken to him.”
What exactly is Avraham’s tradition of tzedaka
and mishpat, and why does it pre-empt the mention of Avraham’s chesed?
This verse also describes these terms as
reflective of the derekh Hashem, the way of God; thus, understanding
their power may help us reveal the secret to the way of God that we desire to
The Rambam’s Understanding of Derekh Hashem
Defining the terms will hopefully be helpful in
understanding a difficulty in the Rambam’s view which we discussed in lesson
#07. The Rambam is analyzing these
same verses about Avraham, and he concludes that this refers to the golden mean,
the proper mode of human behavior.
He explains that we are to walk in the moderate ways of God, fulfilling the
dictate of “Ve-halakhta bi-drakhav,” “And you will follow His ways.” The
Rambam writes that a person who adopts this path is
in fact following the way of God:
We are bidden to follow the middle paths, which are
the right and proper ways, as it is written, “And you will follow His ways”.
Our Sages taught the following explanation of this
mitzva. “Just as He is called ‘merciful,’ so should you be merciful; just as He
is called ‘gracious,’ so should you be gracious.”
Just as He is called “holy”, you shall be holy. In a similar manner, the Prophets
call God by other titles: “slow to anger,” “abundant in kindness,” “righteous”,
“just,” “perfect”… to inform us that these are good and just paths. A person is obligated to accustom
himself to these paths and to emulate Him to the extent of his ability. (Hilkhot
Rambam concludes by saying that this way is derekh Hashem, the way
of God referred to in our verse:
And since the Creator is known by these titles, and
this is the middle path which we must follow, this way is called "the way of
God," and this is what Avraham taught his children, as it is written: “For
I have known
him to the end that he may command [his children and his
household after him to keep the way of God, to do
righteousness and justice]”… And one who
follows this path brings goodness and blessing to himself, as it is written: "To
the end that God may bring upon Avraham that which He has spoken to
him." (ibid. 7)
The Rambam’s explanation is fascinating but at the same time it is very
difficult to understand. The Rambam
describes derekh Hashem, which Avraham sought to bequeath to his
descendants, as the golden mean, maintaining balance in one’s character traits. How does the Rambam know that this is
what the Torah means? Could one not claim that the “way of God” is exercising
every positive character trait in the extreme — being the most humble, the most
generous, the most merciful, etc.
After all, there is no mention in this verse that moderation is the way of God;
how does the Rambam know that this is what this verse refers to? By defining tzedaka and
mishpat, we will be able to understand the Rambam’s position here as well.
Defining Tzedaka and Mishpat
Tzedaka, at first
glance, seems very understandable; nevertheless, in our next lesson, we will try
to explain its deeper meaning. The
real question is the following: what is mishpat, and why is it so
essential to the Jewish tradition?
Indeed, if we attain a better understanding of mishpat and its status as
one of the defining character traits of the Jewish people, we may redefine
tzedaka as well. After all, if
chesed cannot stand alone, and if tzedaka and mishpat
seeming supersede it in the unique heritage of Avraham, each term must be
defined more precisely, with an eye towards its unique Jewish message.
The Hebrew word “mishpat” is literally
translated as “justice.” At first
glance, one can imagine that the Torah commands us to love justice or even to
build a system of justice, but the Jewish tradition goes beyond this, hailing
mishpat as one of the defining ideals of the Jewish people.
In the second-to-last
chapter of his Moreh Ha-nvukhim (III:53), the Rambam explains the three
concepts we are discussing, based on the verse in Yirmeyahu that we began
with. He explains
chesed, as going beyond, doing more
than is required of one — such as doing more for another person than one is
required to. Tzedaka, on the other
hand, means “granting to everyone that which is due to him, and giving to every
being what is deserved.” Mishpat is "applying judgment as is proper in each case, whether giving
benefit or punishment."
The noun mishpat
denotes the act of deciding upon a certain action in accordance with justice,
which may demand either mercy or strictness.
We have thus shown that
chesed denotes pure charity and tzedaka, kindness, prompted by a
certain moral conscience in man, and being a means of attaining perfection for
his soul; mishpat, on the other hand, may in some cases find expression
in revenge, in other cases in mercy.
Rav S. R. Hirsch has a similar explanation for the
cryptic verse (Bereishit 15:6) “He regarded it for him as tzedaka”:
Tzedaka is not
identical with mishpat; tzedaka is always mentioned beside
mishpat as something different.
Only one who does both mishpat and tzedaka fulfills his duty in
life. When God does tzedaka,
He bestows favor on His creatures out of His grace, not on account of their
Mishpat stems from
the root “shafat”… The basic
meaning of the root is to put something in its proper place; the primary meaning
of shafat is thus to impose order.
Mishpat does not make one rich nor add to what exists; it merely
maintains what exists and restores things to their rightful owner.
The commentators express that mishpat entails judgment. It is an
act of careful reflection on what is necessary, and how one deserves to be
treated. With this understanding of
mishpat, one can understand the Rambam’s explanation of the way of God
and the middle path.
Understanding “The Way of God”:
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains how the Rambam’s
definition of mishpat and tzedaka explains the nature of the
In light of this explanation by Rambam, we can now understand what
brings him to understand "the way of God" as he does. Since the verse goes on to
say, "to perform righteousness and justice," rather than "to perform kindness,"
Rambam concludes that the text is not talking here about an educational policy
that calls upon a person to maintain every trait in the most excessive and
extreme fashion. That would be "chesed," which indicates excess. Rather,
the verse discusses an approach that teaches that every trait should be
maintained in moderation, such that the person will not stray from the middle
It should be added that the verse suggests that in order to arrive at
performing righteousness and justice, a person must first lay the foundations of
a lifestyle that represents "the way of God." Someone whose actions are
motivated by momentary considerations may do some good here and there, but this
will not be a structured, consistent process, and there is no way of him passing
it on to future generations. Only a person who builds himself a structured way
of life in which he controls his personality traits and maintains each in a
measured, deliberate fashion, is able to perform "righteousness and justice" and
also to bequeath his path to his children and household.
With this in mind, Rav Lichtenstein explains why in
other instances the Rambam seems to praise extremes in one’s relationship with
God. For example, he describes the
proper adoration of God as boundless lovesickness for Him (Hilkhot Teshuva
10:2). Nevertheless, he still refers
to the middle path as that of moderation.
Only a person who has established for himself the foundations of
"righteousness and justice" can strive for the boundless love of God described
in Shir Ha-shirim, after which he returns unharmed to his routine
lifestyle. Only a person whose path in serving God is a solid, consistent one,
rather than a collection of rapturous religious moments, can bequeath his path
"to his children and his household after him." (Rav
Aharon Lichtenstein, Sicha on
Parashat Vayera, “The Way of God”)
First, one must develop an approach to life built on
tzedaka and mishpat, carefully weighing his actions, knowing when
to administer the letter of the law and when to be more kind. With this in mind, we can understand
an explanation of the Rambam’s golden mean cited in the name of Rav Soloveitchik
zt”l, redefining the nature of the path of moderation.
Rav Soloveitchik is quoted as saying that
moderation does not mean using every attribute in its middle application, for
the simple reason that moderate behavior is not the appropriate response to
every situation. The golden mean must govern a person's general approach to
life, rather than dictate his conduct under all circumstances. The Rambam bids
us to use sound judgment and reason when deciding how to act, rather than
maintaining a consistent pattern of behavior at one extreme. At times a person
must act forcefully, while other instances call for a more mild demeanor. While
some situations require one to deal exactingly and inflexibly, others dictate
adaptability and the willingness to forego. (See
Rav David Silverberg, Parashat Vayera, Virtual Beit Midrash)
The Rav's understanding is expressive of the
balanced life of tzedaka and
mishpat, a synthesis of kindness and justice.
Careful analysis of every situation allows one to determine the most
appropriate mode of action.
The way of God taught to us by Avraham is the
way of sound reason, clarity, sensibility, and careful, patient decision-making.
In essence, one who follows the golden
mean is in control of himself and is carefully able to scrutinize every
situation. Such an individual uses
his sense of mishpat, not as a judge in the courtroom, but a judge over
his own actions, arbitrating the proper mode of behavior.
Every Jew is a Judge
In fact, one might suggest that mishpat is
the overarching obligation of the Jew.
While the concept of judgment is often viewed as the domain of the
appointed judges of the community, this may in fact be only part of the story.
The commentators wonder why it is that Avot,
the tractate that deals with many ethical issues, appears in the section of the
Talmud known as Nezikin, which deals with damages. Two of the Rishonim who dealt with
the question arrive at seemingly different conclusions, but a deeper look may
indicate that these answers are very much related.
The Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishna,
provides a well-developed lengthy discourse on the order of the various
tractates, and he addresses this seeming anomaly.
And after completing the discussion of all the
necessities of judges, the Mishna inserts Tractate Avot. It does so for two reasons. Firstly, in order to tell you the
truth of the Mesora and Jewish tradition… and secondly, in order to
inform us the ethical teachings of the various Jewish scholars of blessed
memory, in order for us to learn from them, and it is the judges that need this
more than anyone else. For if a
regular individual does not study ethical teachings, the damage is minimal, for
he has only caused himself damage.
However, if a judge is unethical or immoral, he destroys himself and the nation
through the damage he inflicts. Therefore,
Tractate Avot begins with laws addressing directly the judges…
The Rambam goes on to enumerate various lessons for
judges that appear at the beginning of Tractate Avot; properly studied,
these lessons improve the judicial system.
The Rambam concludes that a judge who inculcates the lessons of Avot
will become like a master physician who knows exactly when and how to use each
and every means of healing; similarly, the judge who masters these teachings
will know exactly when to be strict or easygoing in judgment, and he will not
cause any unnecessary damage through his decisions.
Thus, the Rambam stresses that Avot is placed
in Nezikin, the section of the Oral Law dealing with criminal, civil and
commercial law, because its main message is aimed at judges.
The Me’iri, on the other hand, seems to
understand differently. He writes in
his introduction to the tractate that “the subject of this tractate is to awaken
man to perfect his attributes and actions in order to achieve the ‘ultimate
perfection,’ i.e., the perfection of the soul.”
The Me’iri continues by saying that, for this reason, Avot is the
tractate which the Talmud (Bava Kamma 30a) points to for
self-improvement, as it contains various explications of the wholesome
At first glance, one might understand that the
Rambam and the Me’iri are providing diametrically opposed outlooks as to the
audience of Tractate Avot.
The Rambam views it as directed towards the judges, designed to perfect their
character in order that they may judge properly, while the Me’iri sees the
tractate as directed towards improving the personality of each and every
On the one hand, one cannot deny the various laws,
especially at the beginning of the tractate, that seem to provide directives to
judges: “Be deliberate in judgment” (Avot 1:1), “Questions the witnesses
thoroughly” (ibid. 9) and the like.
On the other hand, how could the Rambam focus on these directives when numerous
elements of the tractate seem to deal with lessons for the ordinary Jew, not
just the judge?
We may understand that the two explanations
provided, that of the Rambam and that of the Me’iri, are not contradictory but
rather complimentary. As the Me’iri
notes, the tractate is directed towards improving the character of every
individual, but as the Rambam states, perfection of character is most important
for the judges, whose decisions will impact other people and society. Avot is in fact the tractate
for the judge, but every individual acts as a judge, and is involved in
dispensing mishpat, justice.
While some individuals administer justice in courts, others do so in the
marketplace or the like. Any time
one interacts with his fellow man, he acts as a judge. He, sometimes unwittingly, weighs his
neighbors’ actions and determines if he feels they have acted properly. Only someone who has inculcated the
lessons of Avot can be a judge in the courtroom as the Rambam notes, but
as the Me’iri adds, the teachings of Avot are also essential for every
Jew who interacts with his fellow man, for he too is a judge of the other’s
actions, and only proper control can lead to the proper administration of
Mishpat: Weighing Every Action
The approach that man is a judge over himself and
that his actions should be carefully weighed and analyzed as if by a magistrate,
is expressed clearly in many of the commentaries on the Torah’s directive (Devarim
16:18) “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your gates.” The simple explanation of the verse
is that every community must insure that they set up a court system in every
city, along with officers of the court who can enforce the decisions. However, Itturei Torah, a
collection of Torah gems, quotes a number of commentators who understand the
verse as referring to the individual as a judge over himself as well. Among them are the words of Rav
Simcha Bunim of Peshischa:
Whenever you, as an individual, have a decision to
make, appoint judges and officers: “judges” to weigh carefully whether your
decision is a correct one; and once you have decided, appoint “officers” to
carry out that which you have decided, just as an officer enforces the decisions
of the court. Indeed, many of the
best intentions are wasted because of people’s failure to carry them out into
The Toledot Yaakov Yosef takes this idea one step
further: the way one judges others should be in line with how one judges
“Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your
gates” — for you, for yourself.
First judge yourself, and using the same yardstick, judge others. Do not be lenient with your faults
while judging harshly the same fault in others; do not overlook sin in yourself
while demanding perfection of others.
If this is the case, then one can understand what we
saw in lesson #08 from Rav Yaakov Ettlinger’s Arukh La-ner: that the
prophet Mikha’s directive of doing mishpat
refers to mitzvot bein adam le-atzmo, the intrapersonal
directives, aimed at insuring a wholesome personality. As he explains, mishpat is
defined as “weighing one’s actions to ensure that one is wholesome.”
The Chazon Ish’s One Character Trait:
With this in mind, we can understand the fascinating
opinion of the Chazon Ish, expressed in his philosophical work, Emuna
U-vitachon (Faith and Trust). He
writes that the prevalent understanding is that man has many character traits,
all of which act independently and must be perfected individually. He maintains a contrary
understanding: that there is in fact one attitude which determines whether an
individual will be able to protect his character or not.
The teachers of morals have declared that the ways
of perfecting character traits are a separate chapter in the discipline of
perfecting one’s service of Hashem; furthermore, they have even worked on
breaking up the defects into separate ones such as anger, pride, craving, love
of honor, love of dispute, vengefulness, spite etc. As this system of thinking has become
common, many people have become convinced that perfection is made up of
different parts. True, this is so
when it comes to illness of the spirit and when it comes to finding ways to
combat corrupting elements, but at the root of all the character traits,
there is only a single good trait and a single bad one. The bad trait is that of leaving
natural life to its natural processes.
If a person makes no efforts to the contrary, he will become skilled in
all the bad traits…all to the extreme.
He will not even lack one of the bad traits enumerated by the sages.
The good trait is the absolute determination to put
moral feeling above that of desire, and from that starting point, a person can
fight against all the bad traits together.
This determination cannot be partial, for a person whose intellect and
high quality of soul have awakened him and influence him to choose the good,
when he is feeling elevated, strives for endless good and cannot be satisfied
with the good he does. He sees in
front of him an eternal and infinite world, and hates all the bad traits
According to the Chazon Ish, any failure in
character development is rooted in the one negative trait, of taking things as
they go without much attention to the necessary action in every situation. The positive trait, on the other
hand, is that of Truth, weighing carefully each and every action under any
circumstance that might arise, in order to determine the proper mode of action
for every situation.
Conclusion: The Power of Mishpat
Our discussion of mishpat reflects the fact
that Jewish tradition recognizes the importance of control over one’s
sensibilities and traits, and using carefully weighed actions in response to all
situations that might arise. A
balanced life requires that one realize that all his actions, especially
interactions with others, must be reflective of “the way of God,” “the King who
loves tzedaka and mishpat.”
tzedaka are not only the legacy of Avraham; they are not merely Mikha and
Yeshayahu’s essential fundamentals of the Torah; they are also the ideals which
we are supposed to inculcate into our being.
In the fifteenth-century Responsa Yakhin U-Voaz (Vol. I, ch. 134)
we find this stated explicitly. Rav
Duran explains that if the verse in Yirmeyahu declares that one can only
glory in one’s knowledge of God, in being one who administers chesed, mishpat
and tzedaka, then these are obviously essential ideals which must
define our character.
Acting in this way is the antidote for the terrible
predicament of exile that the Jewish people continue to suffer from, as the
prophet Yeshayahu writes:
Zion will be redeemed through mishpat, and
those who return to her through tzedaka. (Yeshayahu 1:27)
May it occur
speedily in our days.