The saintly R. Zusya of Anipoli was a poor man who rarely had a chance to buy fine clothes for himself or his family. Once he obtained a sum of money for which he had no immediate need and with great joy gave it to his wife to have a dress made for her. R. Zusya’s wife happily picked fabric and then took it to a tailor to have it sewn to size.

As she was fitting it for the final adjustments, she saw the tailor sighing. When she asked him the reasons for his sighing, he explained that he would soon be marrying off his daughter. When his wife had seen him working on this dress, she had thought that he was making her a new dress for the wedding. How disappointed she had been to discover that it was being made for someone else!

When R. Zusya’s wife heard this, she willingly gave the dress to the tailor. After all, she had been without a new dress for many years. What difference would another year make?

When she returned home, R. Zusya asked to see the dress and she told him the entire story. He was pleased with his wife’s generosity, but had one question for her: “Did you pay the tailor?”

“Pay him. For what? I gave him the dress.”

“He had worked an entire week to make the dress and was looking forward to his wages to feed his household. He needs that money. It is not right to withhold his wages.”

Parshas Mishpatim

Mishpatim, the name of this week’s Torah reading, means “judgments.” Our Rabbis explain that the term refers to those mitzvos that are dictated not only by Divine fiat, but also by mortal reason, for example, the prohibitions against theft and murder. Even if the Torah would not have been given, most likely mankind would have — and indeed, most societies have — instituted laws of this nature.

Why does man’s mind accept these laws? Because ultimately man’s thought processes are rooted in the Torah. Our Sages tell us that the Torah is “the blueprints and diagrams” through which G‑d created the world. G‑d “looked into the Torah and created the world.” As a result, G‑d’s standards of justice and morality filter into the consciousness of mortals, prompting them to structure their lives and their cultures accordingly. Since these laws are interwoven into the very fabric of the world’s existence, every individual and society cannot help but progress towards living according to these norms. Just like there are natural physical laws that govern our material existence, so too, there are immutable spiritual principles that control our lives.

It’s true. Man has free choice whether to align himself with these principles or not. Indeed, unfortunately, both history and everyday life are filled with examples when man has ignored them. For we have natural, selfish tendencies, desires and drives that run contrary to G‑d’s laws. Our Sages addressed this concept, stating: “A person will not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly takes hold of him.” In other words, after a person has violated G‑d’s laws, if he looks objectively at his conduct, he will admit that it was foolish. At the moment he transgressed, however, he was unable to look objectively. He was caught in the web of his desires and could not think.

We all have the tendency to follow the law of the jungle: “I want it and since I can take it, it belongs to me.” But most of us do not rationalize that as being correct or moral. We have an inner compass pointing us towards the principles that G‑d has embedded within existence. When our desire cools, we are able to appreciate how unjust and improper it is to take something that rightfully belongs to someone else.

It is only when we repeat the misdeed again and again that it becomes habit. Then we seek to rationalize our conduct, for we have trouble looking ourselves in the mirror and admitting that we are acting wrong. Even then, however, in our heart of hearts, we know what is right.

How can we live by our moral compass? What can prevent us from making the temporary mistakes and fluctuating back and forth between our inner recognition of what’s right and our desire to do what we want regardless of whether it’s right or wrong?

The answer to these questions is also reflected in our Torah reading. The conclusion of the Torah reading retells the story of the Giving of the Torah, emphasizing that the laws mentioned at the beginning of the reading are G‑d’s, not man’s.

When we bring ourselves face to face with G‑d’s will, it is hard, almost impossible, to ignore it. As long as we see our standards of right and wrong as mortal, we understand that they are negotiable, for man can never reach absolute truth. When, however, we recognize them as G‑dly, we set up an objective standard that, as long as we have its origin in mind, we will not violate.

Looking to the Horizon

The history of civilization can be seen as an ongoing process in which the Torah’s ideals interact with man’s self-interest and desire for power and gratification. Slowly, as one generation passes the baton of social development to another, the standards of justice G‑d proclaimed at Sinai have disseminated throughout the world. It’s true, we are a far cry from perfection. But look where we have reached! Today, the majority of the nations of the world have laws which emulate, at least to a certain degree, the Torah’s standards.

The culmination of this process will come in the era of the redemption of which it is said: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment.” Indeed, Mashiach will be distinguished by his ability to render judgment, as it is written: “And he will judge between nations.” The standards of justice and righteousness he will teach will enable mankind to reach the state promised in the continuation of that verse: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”