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Home » Mishpatim

Mishpatim: A Debt to G-d

Submitted by on January 21, 2007 – 5:03 amNo Comment | 2,751 views

A Prosaic Portion

The memory of the Ten Commandments at Sinai is stamped into the collective psyche of the Jewish people. It was the piece de resistance of spiritual achievement. A transcendental moment; our souls luxuriated in the presence of the divine, freed from the shackles of vanity and materialism.

It is reasonable to expect the Torah portion that immediately follows the description of the Sinai episode to speak of spiritual quest and devout inspiration. It doesn’t. Instead it is replete with, seemingly prosaic, civil law.

We recognize that the Torah speaks on many levels and exists in parallel universes. When angels and souls study Torah law they don’t perceive the tangible manifestations that we do. The heaven dwellers perceive lofty and pure visions even in the seemingly prosaic civil code. What is their perspective, what uplifting message do they perceive, in this Torah portion?

Partial Admission

Let’s review the laws of partial admission, found in this portion, and use it as an example. If a lender sues a borrower for a thousand dollars and the borrower concedes that he owes five-hundred dollars, Jewish law stipulates that the borrower take an oath to support his partial admission. (1)

The reason is simple. By partly acknowledging the lender’s claim, the borrower admits to defaulting on a five-hundred dollar loan. This casts doubt upon his integrity, which in turn, questions his credibility for the portion of the claim he denies. The burden of proof is devolved unto the borrower and, if he cannot produce witnesses to corroborate his claim, the court has no recourse, but to administer an oath.

Spiritual Debt

This very scenario plays out on a spiritual plateau. G-d endows us with an inner beauty; a serene and spiritual soul. The soul is loaned to us at birth and collected at the moment of passing. We are duty-bound to return it in as good a state or, if possible, a better state, than it was received.

Yet we mar its beauty when we direct our passion toward worldly affairs and neglect our love for G-d. We disturb its serenity when we direct our ambition toward greed and prestige while betraying our bond with G-d. We sully it’s spirit when we invest energy into leisure and career while ignore our commitment to G-d.

G-d looks down and calls in his loan. I lent you a soul, he says, and you aren’t tending to it. I lent you a heavenly treasure and you expend it on vanity and materialism. You owe me the passion that you expended elsewhere. Either restore passion to your soul, or return your soul to me.

What is our response? We acknowledge half of G-d’s claim and deny the other half. We concede that we haven’t cared for our soul as we should have, but we didn’t neglect it completely. We have collected a number of good deeds along the way. We gave to charity, attended synagogue, studied Torah on occasion and even obeyed our parents. We are good people after all.

The Oath

Such a partial admission or acknowledgment of neglect, casts doubt upon our integrity. We may have fulfilled the deeds, but we were clearly lacking in passion. If we were passionate about G-d, we wouldn’t neglect our souls after the deeds were complete. To restore our passion we must validate the oath that we took before we were born and draw on the inner resources that it provides.

Just before birth, every soul is made to take an oath of piety. The Hebrew word for oath, Shevuah, also means satisfaction. When the soul takes the oath, G-d endows it or satisfies it, with spiritual resources that enable it to fulfill the oath. These resources are set aside for us, to be summoned by G-d, whenever he feels that we need to reignite our passion or inspire our commitment. (2)

We cannot know when G-d calls us on our lack of passion, but we do know when we are seized with a sudden bout of inspiration. At such times it is highly likely that G-d summoned our inner reserves because he felt that we were not sufficiently inspired or passionate. At such times it behooves us to scrutinize our recent behavior and utilize the sudden gift of inspiration for constructive and lasting change.

Delay, not Default

There is another approach that might be taken when we realize our need for introspection and change.   For further analysis, we must return to the borrower, who acknowledged a portion of the lender’s claim.

If the court is satisfied that the borrower had no intention of defaulting on the loan,a debt to G-d - innerstream but delayed payment because he was working to raise funds, for example, if the borrower claimed to be selling off properties to raise funds, but was loathe to rush the sale, lest property values plummet, then his integrity is restored and he must be absolved from any oath obligation. (3)

On the Employer’s Dime

Imagine a situation in which your employer sent you to a conference to represent the company. You slept late the first morning, took a leisure breakfast and went for a stroll after lunch. By the time you arrived at the conference you missed a key meeting. Your lax attitude has cost your company dearly.

You now have two options. One is to sit down, write a report and submit a full assessment of the damage you caused. The second option is to shrug off your lazy morning and get to work. Maximize your effort, put in extra hours and salvage as much as you can for your company.

The first may be the more honest approach, the second is more productive and probably more appropriate. Write the report on your own time. Worry about your integrity on your own time, not on the company’s time. For now you must run or you will miss your next meeting. If you stop to write a report or to reflect on your irresponsibility you may very well squander another opportunity. Worry about the report when the conference is over.

On G-d’s Time

We are each allotted a specific number of days to live and a mission is assigned to each day. At times we are efficient and fulfill our mission with alacrity and at times we are distracted and go about our day with apathy. This is a fact. The question is what to do when we awaken and realize that we have allowed too many days to slip past and failed to fulfill the missions assigned to them.

We have two options. We can come to a full stop; engage in bitter introspection, confess our shortcomings to G-d and work out a detailed plan of repentance. We can do that, but it takes time and the clock is ticking. We are in a new day and we have a fresh assignment. If we spend time today worrying about yesterday we will have squandered another day and failed at another mission.

There is a second option. When G-d calls in his loan and demands that we repent, we can reply that we are simply out of time. If we pause now to reflect and repent, another day will go by. Another day will lose its value. Another mission will go unfulfilled. We could worry about the oath when we return our soul to our maker. For now, we simply don’t have time. We are running from day to day and from mission to mission. (4)

When G-d hears this argument he restores our credibility and absolves us from validating our oath. In this mindset there is no need for the oath. The oath fortifies us with additional spiritual strength to overcome our challenges. Taking the attitude that we don’t live for ourselves, but for G-d, meaning to fulfill his mission, instantly endows us with abundant strength and commitment. (5) (6)


  1. Bab. Talmud, Shavuot, 38b. Choshen Mishpat 87, 1. Exodus 22: 8.
  2. Bab. Talmud, Nidah, 30b. See Kitzurim V’heoros Letanya, chapter 1. See Vayikra Rabba, 29 8.
  3. Bab. Talmud, Baba Kama, 46b. Choshen Mishpat, 24: 1. See Shach ibid. In this case we would hear the debtor’s claim before listening to the creditor. This way the debtor will not have offered a partial admission to his creditor’s larger claim, but a full acknowledgment of the smaller debt, without technically hearing the larger claim first.
  4. This explains why Rabbi Yochana ben Zakai lamented at the end of his life that he did not know whether he will be placed in Paradise or purgatory (Bab. Talmud, Brachos, 28b). He was a great leader, a scholar and a pious man, why wasn’t he confident that he would be placed in paradise? He never took the time to think about himself and where he stood vis a vis his obligations to G-d. Toward the very end when he stopped chasing his daily assigned missions, he breathed easier for the first time and turned his attention upon himself, wondering, for the first time, where he might be led. Not having fully concluded his calculations he could not be certain where he would be led, hence his tearful lament.
  5. The debtor who claims that he has yet to repay his loan because he has not been able to sell his properties at a fair price, must demonstrate that he has been trying to sell his property and is not using this argument as an excuse to avoid payment. We too need to demonstrate that we are taking our responsibility to our daily assigned missions seriously and are not using them as  excuses to avoid facing our shortcomings.
  6. This essay is based on Likutei Sichot, I, p. 41 and 155. Likutei Sochot, XVI, 269 Sefer Mamarim 1952, p. 172.

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