Friday, February 1, 2008

MISHPATIM: MILES OF SMILES

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Sometimes a smile is all we have left in this world. For those born into poverty, a smile may be all they ever have when entering or leaving the world. For those who've had it all and lost it all, it may be all they have left. And even if fortune herself has smiled upon us, and we depart this plane with our assets intact, all we could ever take along with us is our smile (and a well-worn tattered valise of mitzvahs).

It's often fascinating to explore subtle word or letter shifts; nuances of subtle meanings. Often translations fail to do justice to the true meaning of the text when these subtleties are overlooked. One of these occurs in our parsha, Mishpatim, where we learn some of the laws of treating the poor.

In EX 22:25,26, it says, "If you take your neighbor's garment as security (for a loan), you must return it before sunset. This alone is his covering, the garment for his skin. With what shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate (Kaplan)."

The Hebrew reads: im chavol tachbol salmat rei'echa ad bo hashemesh t'shivenu lo. kee hee kh'suto levada hee simlato le'oro bameh yishkav? vehaya kee yitzak elai veshamati kee chanun ani.

Problematically, the translation of the initial phrase, regarding the taking of the garment, while informative, lacks the emotional impact created by the doubling of the verb ChVL. Related to the Hebrew word chaval, or pity, it starkly defines his state of want. It is also related to the word for terrorist, a mechabel, the causative form for one who puts another in dire straits, becoming thus an object of pity. Francophiles and equestrians aside, perhaps the word "chivalrous" is also related, as in bestowing a kindness to one in dire need (chvl). But I digress.

We are instructed to show extra compassion because of the nature of his pitiful situation. Yes, you've given him a loan, you have every right under normal circumstances to hold on to the collateral until the loan is repaid. But the doubling of the verb CHaVaL/pity (chavol tachbol) gives us dire pause. We're told in the strongest of terms: "Have pity!" Dare to disregard protocol. This guy will freeze at night without his garment.

Okay, as a matter of principle take it by day, but make sure he's warm at night! Just as the doubling up of the word for "justice" in the phrase tzedek tzedek tirdof has come to be understood as the need to pursue justice using just means, so too chavol tachbol can be understood as the necessity at times to disregard protocol and the letter of the law so that the compassionate essence of the Torah's message may be preserved. We must pursue compassion using compassionate means.

Here we have a foreshadowing of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Basic shelter and human creature comforts take precedence over economic requirements and earning a profit. Social justice revolves around economic justice. But what good is that sense of justice if it is not balanced by a sense of compassion?

More pointedly, note the disimilarity in terms of the letter inversion between salma (vs 25) and simla (vs 26). Both mean garment. But why the letter inversion? Perhaps it can make sense if we add a slight diacritical inversion of our own. Instead of reading salma, meaning "his garment," we might switch the "dot," as it were (The Torah has no dots. It could be read either way), and read it as SHalma, "his greeting"- his greeting of "Shalom." If someone has nothing left of any material value in the world, perhaps all he has left is his greeting.

The Torah is suggesting here that just as important as it may be to return someone's physical garment to him to keep warm, it is just as important, if not more so, to return someone's greeting. His emotional health and sense of self-worth is innately valuable. To degrade a person by ignoring his greeting out of a sense of false superiority and snobbery does violence to the notion of the Divine spark which inheres within all humanity. You're stealing from him all he has left.

It is for this reason that in Pirkei Avoth it says (4:20): "Rabbi Masya ben Carash said: initiate a greeting to every person..." In other words, even better than responding is initiating; be proactive rather than reactive. But to get back to our parsha, even if you can't initiate by offering a greeting, the deeper meaning is that we should at least return one. "Thou shalt surely return his physical blanket and his non-material greeting (salma/shalma)![Melman]"

In summary, deeply imbedded in the seemingly mundane laws of collateral for loans, is the deepest secret for true social justice and salvation. We show our love to Hashem and earn our blessings and redemption by showing love to His creatures. What does a baby teach us? We might have nothing in the world at all. Not even a penny. But what really counts is what the baby brought down from heaven: her smile. You may "go back to the garden," but it wouldn't be much fun having lost your smile and the gladness in your heart.

Shabbat Shalom

© 2000 - 2008 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen Melman, z"l

http://seferchabibi.blogspot.com/2007/07/yahrzeit-of-my-father-27-tammuz.html

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506EEDC1630F93BA35754C0A9649C8B63

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)

Dedications are available.

My band, Niggun, is available for all simchas.
Contact me privately at niggun@aol.com
(niggun means wordless spiritual melody, the highest kind there is)

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About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!