This week, particularly right now when we are in an uncertain moment as a country, I’d like to share a thought on the parsha which touches on what the Torah believes to be the basic principles with which we should live our lives.
What are the principles that create the city and govern the polity in which we live? The Torah tells us that right before G-d reveals to Avraham His intention to destroy Sodom, He says (18:17-19): “הַֽמֲכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה… – Will I hide from Avraham what I’m about to do? Avraham will be a great nation! …כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו… – I know that he will command his household and pass on to his future generations.” What will he pass on? “…וְשָֽׁמְרוּ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה’ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט – To watch, to observe, to practice the way of G-d through Tzedaka – righteousness, and Mishpat – justice.” This is what Avraham is about; this is what he will pass down to his future generations. This is why Avraham goes through the world calling out in G-d’s name: to teach people that G-d exists and that the way of G-d is tzedaka and mishpat.
The idea of “the way of G-d – דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה” is something that the Rabbis particularly focus on in a verse that appears in Devarim (28:10): “וְהָלַכְתָּ֖ בִּדְרָכָֽיו – we should live our lives by walking in G-d’s ways.” What are G-d’s ways? The Rabbis answer this in one of two ways. Sometimes they speak about the attributes of G-d, the personal character traits – loving, caring, giving, רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן. At other times they talk about specific, concrete acts. G-d cares for the sick and welcomes the stranger, so you should visit the sick and you should welcome the stranger.
But this week’s parsha is the only place where the Torah speaks about what the “way of G-d” actually is. It tells us how to act, not with specific or concrete examples, but rather by telling us the principles by which we should live our lives. These are the principles of tzedaka and mishpat.
So what is the difference between tzedaka and mishpat? Rabeinu Yonah says that mishpat is about justice and truth; it is a standard by which we live our lives and by which we deal with others. Tzedaka is about good, care, and kindness; it is about our responsibility to do good towards others. How does this play out? We see mishpat when Avraham challenges G-d (18:25): “הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט – Will the Judge of all the world not deal justly?!” If you punish the righteous along with the wicked, if you live by a principle of falseness and injustice, that is not mishpat. Mishpat says that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded. It contrasts truth and falsehood, righteousness and wickedness. Mishpat is to know which is which and act to accordingly.
We do use the word tzedaka to express ‘giving to the poor,’ but it’s not quite charity – it’s tzedek – righteousness, obligation. The right way of the world is for those with more resources to take care of those who have fewer. That sense of obligation towards the other, of goodness towards the other, is the principle of tzedaka.
It is these exact two principles that were lacking in Sodom. The prophet Yechezkel (16:49) tells us, “This was the sin of Sodom… they had much wealth but יַד־עָנִ֥י וְאֶבְי֖וֹן לֹ֥א הֶחֱזִֽיקָה – they didn’t care about the poor among them.” They wanted only to accrue more wealth, with no care for anyone on the outside. Sodom’s citizenry did not believe in the principle of tzedaka. The Rabbis tell us that they also did not believe in the principle of mishpat. The laws of Sodom were such that those who had resources put all of their burdens on those who did not. The responsibilities of the society were disproportionately and specifically given to those who had less means to fulfill those responsibilities. It was the poor, not the rich, who bore the greatest responsibilities – a perversion of mishpat.
The Torah is telling us that the correct way to live our lives is like Avraham, with two core standards:that of mishpat, truth, and that of tzedaka, obligation and responsibility to care for others. Ultimately, the verse in Micha (6:8) tells us “What is it the Lord wants from you? עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ – Live a life of good and obligation towards others, not a life of taking for yourself. Live a life of mishpat, with your actions based on truth. And live a life of humility. Act in a way that says we are not the center, G-d is the center, other people are the center.”
May we live lives of humility, tzedaka, and mishpat.