Mishpatim: Sift and sort

This Torah portion prompts us to sift and sort the false from the truth, so that we can gain a glimpse of our true motivations and interests.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

The Torah portion that follows the awe-inspiring story of Mount Sinai, presents formulaic monetary laws and laws of personal injury. Why should the resolution of petty squabbles be the first subject to follow the Sinai event, which surely placed our ancestors on a higher plane? Many answers have been offered, but the answer that I want to present today is that resolving petty squabbles forces us to sift and sort.

When two people lay claim to the same property, each formulates elaborate arguments to buttress his respective position. By laying out the rules that govern these laws, the Torah forces us to sift through their arguments and sort truth from falsehood. On the surface, each argument appears convincing. But when we analyze and compare, reflect and digest, sift and sort, we come to recognize the truth.

Sorting truth from falsehood encapsulates the purpose of life. G-d is true. Holiness is true. Altruism is true. Sincerity is true. Kindness is true. Selfishness is false, revenge is false. Insincerity is false. Yet, so often when we choose the latter, we construct elaborate arguments to prove that they are in fact the former. It is incumbent on us to analyze and compare, reflect and digest, sift and sort, until we stop deceiving ourselves and come to recognize the truth.

Whom do you Serve?
A man once visited his venerated rabbi. The rabbi invited him to sit and each selected a fruit from the bowl at the center of the table. Each recited a Bracha (blessing) paying careful attention to each word, and then each took a bite.

The visitor spoke insolently and reflected that at least when it comes to sharing an apple, the visitor and his rabbi were on the same plane. The Rabbi thought for a moment and replied.

I wake up in the morning and see a beautiful world. I gaze out and I see beautiful trees that grow from a beautiful seed. I am overwhelmed by a desire to praise the Creator and the only way I know how, is to recite a Bracha. However, one may only recite a Bracha if one eats something, so I take an apple to recite the Bracha and praise G-d.

You wake up in the morning and feel hungry. You see a beautiful apple and are gripped by a desire to eat it. You reach for it and are about to pop it in your mouth, when you remember your obligation to recite a Bracha. You recite the Bracha to eat the apple.

On the surface, the rabbi and the visitor seemed to behave identically. Yet, when they analyzed and compared, reflected and digested, sifted and sorted, they came to see how different they were.

The purpose of this story is not to put down the visitor, G-d forbid. The purpose is to teach us how to sift through our own inclinations and stop deceiving ourselves, so that we too can arrive at the truth. When we eat, sleep, relax or have fun, we must ask ourselves, whom we really serve. Do we eat so we can serve G-d or do we serve G-d so we can eat? Who is our ultimate master, is it G-d, or is it us?

A rabbi once saw his daughter in law praying quickly and rushing to eat breakfast. When he inquired about this strange behavior, she explained that the doctor instructed her to eat early in the morning, but she didn’t want to eat before praying. Hence, she rushed through her prayers. The rabbi told her to eat first and then pray. Eat in order to pray, he concluded. Don’t pray in order to eat.

Some scenarios have simple answers, but some are more complicated. For example, the following story: A woman told her rabbi that her daughter was engaged, and she lacked the funds for a bridal gown. The rabbi provided her with funds. The woman returned the next day crying that she had no money for her own gown. The rabbi hesitated for a moment before providing funds for another gown.

The rabbi later explained that during his moment of hesitation he took time to sift and sort. His first instinct was to refuse. Why should this woman receive money for two gowns, when other families lacked for basic necessities? Let this woman wear a simple dress to her daughter’s wedding. Then he realized that his argument, noble as it seemed, was in truth self-serving. Because if he really meant to support those who need bread, why didn’t he think to support them before this woman arrived?

We think we are motivated by wanting to do a good deed, when in fact we are motivated by not wanting to do a good deed. We deceive ourselves and make ourselves look good, when in truth we are simply looking for an out. It is only after we do what this Torah portion prompts us to do, sift and sort the false from the truth, that we can gain a glimpse of our true motivations and interests.

For example, when we get caught up in conflict, we often present our position in the rosiest colors and our protagonist in the most negative terms. Our ego deceives us into believing our own lies and tells us to take offense when our sincerity is questioned. But we need to sift and sort through our own consciousness and determine if we are being truthful. Whom are we serving, the truth or our ego?

Six Years
The first law presented in this Torah portion is about the Hebrew slave who is indentured for six years, but on the seventh year is set free. This is a metaphor for the Jewish week. The week has six work days, and the seventh is Shabbat, a day of rest.

During the six days of the week we plant and reap, gather and thresh, sort and sift, then grind and knead, bake and eat. These labors are forbidden on Shabbat. Not because they are too strenuous for the day of rest, but because Shabbat is so holy that these labors are not necessary.

Each of these actions has a corollary in spiritual terms. We plant by earning money so that we can afford to do a Mitzvah. We reap, when we perform the Mitzvah. We gather when we reflect on the Mitzvos we did and thresh to remove any imperfections in the way we performed them. But then comes the most important part. We sift and sort the chaff from the wheat, rejecting the chaff and selecting the wheat.

This refers to what we have been talking about. Sift and sort through our motivations to determine whom we serve. Are we self-serving or G-d serving? Are we in it for ourselves or are we altruistically invested in G-d? We can’t lie to ourselves because we will know we are lying. A wise man once said, you can’t fool others. You certainly can’t fool G-d. You can only fool yourself, but why bother fooling a fool?

Shabbat is the one day when we can rest easy from this task. On this holy day, we immerse ourselves in holiness and don’t need to sift and sort. The entire day belongs to G-d and everything we do is for Him. The Torah portion about Sinai, is like Shabbat. The portion after Sinai, is like entering the work week. Hence the indentured servant, goes to work and learns how to sift and sort.



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