The Path of Return
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, contains the first set of laws that Moshe presented to the Jewish people. These regulations were subsumed under the heading of Mishpatim, ie. social ordinances regulating the behavior of people in their dealings with others. The commandments are divided into two groups known as “between man and G-d” and “between man and man.” Prohibitions about forbidden foods, sexual relations, etc. are examples of the first category. The injunction against slander, or the obligation to return lost objects are examples of directives pertaining to our responsibilities to others. The question arises, which of the two categories of mitzvot are more significant?
It should be noted that there are differences in the consequences that result from violations of the laws between man and G-d as opposed to those between man and man. No one is perfect and man by nature is prone to sin. This is, by no means, the doctrine that man is evil by nature which certain forms of Christianity espouse. Judaism is the only religion, in my opinion, which is founded on the principle of the perfectibility of man. Man is not in need of any extraneous gesture of salvation. His destiny is completely in his own hands. He is a sinner by nature because he is imperfect and his task is to correct his defects and do what is good. Hashem knew that we are bound to sin at times and in His mercy gave us the opportunity of Teshuva. The power of Teshuva is so great that it can attain atonement for even the most egregious sins. According to the Rambam no sin is beyond the healing power of Teshuva. Even if a person has been a sinner all of his life and did genuine Teshuva at the very end, he is forgiven and has a share in the world to come. This is an example of supreme magnanimity in the authentic religion of Mercy and compassion. However, I would caution against an attitude of complacency in confronting one’s sins. One should not feel that there is no rush and, worst case, he can always repent “later.” No one knows what the future holds in store for him and if he puts it off he may never get the chance to renounce his sins. Even if he does it is unlikely that one who is entrenched in a sinful way of life will see the light when his days are up. The wise person should not put off the most important decision pertaining to his existence in this world and the one to come. The return to Hashem is an urgent necessity which should never be postponed.
The awareness that Hashem is benevolent and always desires our Teshuva should be a permanent part of our consciousness. Even when committing a serious sin one should not despair for he can rectify the lapse and be forgiven. However, he must realize that not all sins are the same, in terms of Teshuva. Sin between man and G-d is much simpler to overcome. In such a case one must come before his Creator, with sincere contrition and resolve to abandon the sin he has committed.
However, sins between man and man are more difficult to repair. Before confessing to G-d one must make amends with the aggrieved party and solicit his forgiveness. This is a much more challenging task. One can conquer his pride and humbly admit wrongdoing before the Creator of the Universe. It is not so easy to put ego aside and say you were wrong to a person you offended. Even if you muster the strength to do this you must still face the possibility that your apology won’t be accepted and you will have a very tough time obtaining forgiveness. Hashem is all merciful but humans can be a mean, unforgiving lot. There are people who simply can never let go of a slight and will not let you off the hook.
When we deal harshly or insensitively with others we are often not even aware that we have hurt them. Or, it’s possible that we did harm to a group of people and will not have the chance to track each one down and straighten out the mess. Perhaps that is why the first set of laws are the social ordinances. For many people it is easier to observe the personal restrictions and obligations which are purely between man and Hashem. It is easy to give honor to Hashem and these laws are for our personal benefit. It is more difficult to overcome pride and be respectful of the dignity and rights of others. Judaism demands that we follow the Torah in the area of personal, ritual requirements and also adhere to the high standards of justice and respect that it requires us to show to others. Let us remember that in respecting others we are displaying honor to Hashem who created each person “in His image.” In that sense every commandment is, at bottom, between man and G-d. We honor our Creator by demonstrating love for those creatures whom He endowed with a Divine soul.