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    Parashat Mishpatim
    presents a long series
    of laws, involving
    mainly interpersonal
    relations. We find here,
    for example, the prohibition against speaking
    insensitively to a widow or orphan, the
    responsibility to compensate for damages
    which one caused, laws governing liability for
    damages to people’s possessions with which
    one is entrusted, and so on.
    This Parasha begins with the words “Ve’ele
    Ha’mishpatim Asher Tasim Lifnehem” –
    “And these are the laws which you [Moshe]
    shall place before them.” Rashi notes that this
    verse, unusually, begins with the letter “Vav”
    (“Ve-”), which means “and.” As we were all
    taught in school, a new section should not
    begin with the conjunction “and.”
    Rashi explains that this letter is very
    significant, in that it connects the laws of
    Parashat Mishpatim with the laws mentioned
    at the end of the previous Parasha, Parashat
    Yitro – specifically, the Ten Commandments.
    The Torah connected these two Parashiyot
    with the letter “Vav,” Rashi explains, to teach
    us that just as the Ten Commandments were
    pronounced at Sinai, the laws in Parashat
    Mishpatim were likewise transmitted to our

    ancestors at Mount Sinai.
    If we would be asked what makes us
    “religious,” to put together a “resume”
    affirming our religiosity, we would probably
    include things such as Shabbat observance,
    eating only kosher, adhering to the laws
    of Taharat Ha’mishpaha (family purity),
    Halachically-appropriate attire, and praying
    three times a day. Certainly, these are crucially
    important components of a religious life that
    must be included in this resume.
    But there are many other things that are no
    less integral to a religious resume. Being
    courteous, honest, hard-working, speaking
    respectfully to all, especially to one’s spouse,
    children and other family members, giving
    charity, treating one’s employees properly,
    extending a helping hand to people in need
    – these are no less important parts of our
    religious resume than Shabbat, Kashrut, and
    praying with a Minyan.
    It is told that somebody once approached Rav
    Shimon Schwab (1908-1995) and asked him
    to explain the phenomenon of religious Jews
    who conduct their business affairs dishonestly
    and cheat on their taxes. He replied, “How do
    I explain this? The same way I explain how
    religious Jews could eat on Yom Kippur.”
    The person didn’t understand what the Rabbi

    meant. “Somebody who eats on Yom Kippur
    isn’t religious!” he said.
    “And somebody who lies and cheats on his
    taxes isn’t religious,” Rav Schwab said.
    Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explained
    that this is the meaning of Rashi’s comment
    regarding the “Vav” at the beginning of
    Parashat Mishpatim. The Torah wanted to
    emphasize to us that the laws in this Parasha,
    which deal with proper interpersonal relations,
    are no less integral to religion than our
    obligations to Hashem. The laws of Parashat
    Mishpatim were also given to us at Mount
    Sinai together with the rest of the Torah.
    Dealing with people kindly, honestly and
    courteously is no less of a religious obligation
    than Shabbat and Kashrut.
    The Yahrtzheit of Rav Yisrael Salanter
    (1810-1883), the founder of the Mussar
    movement, is 25 Shebat. Appropriately, this
    day is always around the time of the reading
    of Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah’s code of
    interpersonal conduct. Rav Yisrael Salanter
    very strongly emphasized the importance of
    our interpersonal obligations as an integral
    part of Torah life.
    It is told that before his students went to
    bake Masot for Pesach at the factory, they
    approached him to ask which stringencies

    he felt they should observe. He replied,
    “The woman who works at the factory is a
    widow – remember to speak to her kindly and
    This was the most important thing for them
    to remember. There are numerous stringencies
    which are appropriate to observe when
    baking Masot for Pesach, but they are only
    stringencies, which are not required on the
    level of strict Torah law. Speaking respectfully
    to a widow, however, is an outright Torah
    obligation. This takes priority.
    This is the lesson of the letter “Vav” at the
    beginning of Parashat Mishpatim – that the
    way we deal with people is also part of Torah,
    and must be included in our religious resume.