Jewish common sense: When we do the wrong thing for the “right” reason

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

By Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1−24:18)

When Ronald Reagan was president, spearheading the fight against communism, he told a story about a collective farm in the Soviet Union, one in which a state commissar grabbed a farm worker and said, “Comrade, how are the crops?”

“Oh,” said the farm worker, “Comrade Commissar, if we could put the potatoes in one pile, they would reach the foot of God.”

The commissar corrected him, “This is the Soviet Union, comrade. There is no God.”

“That’s all right,” said the farm worker, “there are no potatoes.”

This week’s Torah portion has an abundance, not a shortage, of laws. There is also a rudimentary form of humor. In Exodus 22: ​25-26 we read: ‘If you take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall deliver it to him by sundown; for that is his only covering, it is the garment for his skin; Where shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he cries to me, that I will hear; for I am compassionate.’

The Torah may not be offering standup comedy but there is a note of sarcasm in the question: “Where shall he sleep?” In other words, common sense teaches us that you should not deprive someone of the means of warmth at night. This is just not right.

This common sense seems obvious, but as Mark Twain observed, “common sense is not always common.”

Most people do not think they are doing the wrong thing. Most people do the wrong thing, such as mistreating another person, because they do not understand they are doing anything wrong. For instance, in the Talmud (Taanit 24a) we read of day laborers who are starving because their owner did not return from a trip to pay them (or feed them). When the owner returns, he defends his lack of payment by saying he was engaged in a mitzvah. All well and good for the mitzvah he was performing but not for the starving workers. In other words, the owner justified his actions but did not comprehend the suffering his actions caused.

I was once asked to choose my “favorite” sin from the list of forty-four sins that are traditionally listed on Yom Kippur. Which one was the most pervasively detrimental? My choice was easy: “For the sin we commit without knowing it.” Why is this sin so bad? Because we don’t even know we are doing it!

To return to the Torah verse, it may well be that we have reasons for not returning the garment to whoever we loaned something. We may justify keeping it. But the Torah makes clear that there is no justification. We may think we are doing something that can be defended. It cannot.

As the great Torah commentator S.D. Luzatto points out, the very fact that this borrower is so poor he only has one garment makes it quite clear, if clarity is to be found, that the person deserved compassion more than shame. It is not always easy for someone who feels wronged (i.e., the lender) to see the reality and feel compassion. In my experience one who feels wronged (i.e. a victim) often turns into a bully despite the reality of the situation.

My takeaway from this verse, then, is that we may be justified in our own minds for certain behavior but if we pause and consider it through Heaven’s eyes, we might see the same situation with compassion.  In other words, we should live our lives in such a way that G-d would approve our choices.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg is the rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago (Reform).

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