Shiur #40: Pursuit of the Ethical Life (11) The Jewish People and Tzedaka U-mishpat Part I: In Tanakh and Chazal

  • Rav Dr. Judah Goldberg
Until now, in our attempt to demonstrate the eternal relevance of berit Avot’s ethical vision, we have examined isolated phenomena that seem better explained by the values of tzedaka u-mishpat than by any specific laws of berit Sinai. Kofin al middat Sedom, the Rambam’s emphasis upon charity, arbitration, and the king’s employment of moral intuition all have textual and conceptual links to the complementary values of tzedaka and mishpat, and, in turn, validate tzedaka u-mishpat as active, potent forces within the Jewish experience, independent of the ethical demands and regulations of Jewish law.
Upon this backdrop, we now seek to explore the manifestations of tzedaka u-mishpat within Torah She-bikhtav and Torah She-be’al Peh more fully. If, in the last shiur, we saw how both demanding and empowering mishpat and tzedaka are for Jewish kings, in this shiur we turn our attention to the masses. In the eyes of our prophets and our Sages, tzedaka u-mishpat not only define the Davidic mission but also must pervade the fabric of collective public and private Jewish life. Though not the object of any Torah commandment, pursuit of tzedaka u-mishpat carries the potential to hasten the redemption; conversely, its abandonment, as with the House of David, can lead to destruction.[1]
Tzedaka U-mishpat as a Goal for the People
Aspiration towards tzedaka u-mishpat and expectation for them are persistent themes throughout Tanakh regarding the commoner and the king alike. Specifically, Tanakh often speaks of “performing” (assiyyat) tzedaka u-mishpat, which is reminiscent of “to perform (la-asot) tzedaka u-mishpat” in Bereishit 18:19.[2] In Sefer Yechezkel, “performing mishpat u-tzdaka” is synonymous with all-around righteousness (18:5, 19, 21, 27 and 33:14, 19). Yirmeyahu, in addition to exhorting kings to perform mishpat u-tzdaka, anticipates a time when the Jews “will swear by the life of God with truth, with mishpat, and with tzedaka” (4:2).[3] Sefer Tehillim praises those “who protect mishpat, who perform tzedaka consistently” (106:3).
Amos both chastises the nation for its lack of tzedaka u-mishpat and pushes for their prioritization, as does his disciple, Yeshayahu (see Rambam’s introduction to Mishneh Torah). In the negative, Amos laments those “who turn mishpat into wormwood and cast tzedaka to the earth” (5:7); the people have “turned mishpat into poison and the fruit of tzedaka into wormwood” (6:12). Prof. Moshe Weinfeld (126n) notes that Yeshayahu echoes this metaphor of mishpat and tzedaka as plants that have gone bad. God bemoans the corruption that has befallen His “vineyard,” the Jewish people: “He hoped for mishpat, but behold, mispach (a blemish); for tzedaka, but behold, tze’aka (cries)” (Yeshayahu 5:7). God further decries the people who disingenuously “seek Me daily and knowledge of My ways desire, like a nation that performed tzedaka and did not abandon mishpat of its God” (Yeshayahu 58:2).[4]
In the positive, Amos pleads with the people to hold back their ritual worship and let mishpat u-tzdaka abound instead:
Spare me your many hymns, and let me not hear the music of your lutes/ Let mishpat issue forth like water, and tzedaka like a mighty stream. (5:23-24)
This contrast is echoed in Chazon Yeshayahu, which we examined in Shiur #32 and which culminates with a prediction:
Zion will be redeemed through mishpat, and her captives through tzedaka. (1:27)
The Jewish people can survive without sacrifice, but they are crippled without tzedaka u-mishpat.[5] On the flipside, their rehabilitation will ultimately come through returning to their ethical roots.
Tzedaka U-mishpat: Obligations or Values?
What is striking about this Biblical survey is that tzedaka u-mishpat form such a central thread throughout the texts but rarely appear in the form of a command. Rather, they seem to be taken for granted as core elements of our national identity and mission, as if they transcend, or even predate, the particular rules of halakhic Judaism.
Of course, this is entirely fitting for tzedaka u-mishpat’s essential character as values of berit Avot. Berit Avot is all about vision and expectations, rather than rules and commandments, and tzedaka u-mishpat, for the most part, stay true to this form throughout the rest of Tanakh. When the prophets invoke tzedaka u-mishpat, they are not holding the people accountable for violating duties, but for disowning their national heritage.
Only once in Tanakh, to my knowledge, does God directly command the Jewish people to uphold tzedaka u-mishpat, parallel to the charges to the leadership in Yirmeyahu (22:3) and Yechezkel (45:9):
Yeshayahu’s command to the people, together with Yirmeyahu’s and Yechezkel’s messages to the monarchy, validate tzedaka u-mishpat as duties and not mere ideas. At the same time, these verses are the exceptions to the rule. More typically, Tanakh relates to tzedaka u-mishpat as presumed traits: present in Avraham, David, Shlomo, and other kings, and lacking in Yehoyakim and, too often, the nation as a whole. If the people are to find redemption, Yeshayahu is telling them, they need not to cross off tzedaka u-mishpat from their checklists, but to rediscover and embody the spirit and ethos of Parashat Vayera.
Tzedaka U-mishpat and Redemption in Torah She-be’al Peh
Yeshayahu’s direct charge is underscored by Chazal. Coupling it to a verse from Tehillim, they portray the Jewish people as heeding its call, seeking God’s support, and asking for the reciprocity that God promises.
In Shemot Rabba, the Jewish people seek to answer Yeshayahu’s directive, but oppression stands in their way. Like King David in Tehillim, they appeal to God for help:
“Protect mishpat and perform tzedaka” — this is what it says, “I performed mishpat and tzedek,[7] do not subject me to swindlers” (Tehillim 119:121). The Jews said, “Master of the Universe, see that we wish to perform tzedaka u-mishpat, but we are afraid of pagans; do not hand us over to them.” This is “I performed mishpat and tzedek [etc.].” (30:22)
R. Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi explains that according to this Midrashic interpretation of Yeshayahu 56:1, God’s “salvation” is not a reward for tzedaka u-mishpat, but a means to their achievement (Yefei To’ar).[8] Tzedaka u-mishpat and redemption, then, are mutually supportive: tzedaka u-mishpat lead to salvation, but salvation allows for the unhampered pursuit of tzedaka u-mishpat.
Midrash Tehillim, too, links the verses in Yeshayahu and in Tehillim, but regarding their plain meanings. Both King David and the Jews seek God’s reciprocity for their respective performances of tzedaka u-mishpat:
“I performed mishpat and tzedek, do not subject me to swindlers” – Yeshayahu said, “Zion will be redeemed through mishpat, etc.” (1:27). Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: “If the Jews would only perform mishpat u-tzdaka, they would be immediately redeemed. Not only that, but I would [also] hold their enemies accountable… David said, “Through mishpat they will be redeemed? I also ‘performed mishpat and tzedek’!”
And so it says, “Protect mishpat and perform tzedaka.” Thus said the Jewish people: “Did we not fulfill our pledge, like our forefather Avraham, as it says, ‘For I have known him that he will command his children, etc.’ (Bereishit 18:19)? We fulfilled our pledge; You now do yours.” (119:53)
Here, the Midrash specifically ties Yeshayahu’s charge to berit Avot. In claiming their fulfillment of Yeshayahu’s exhortation, the Jewish people note how in doing so, they follow in the footsteps of Avraham.
Chazal emphasize the redemptive power of mishpat u-tzdaka by further highlighting the prophecies of Yeshayahu. Speaking in God’s voice, the Midrash says:
“If you observe both of them — tzedaka and justice — immediately I will bring you the complete redemption. From where? As it says, “Thus said God: ‘Protect mishpat and perform tzedaka, for My salvation will arrive imminently, and My generosity will be revealed.’” (Devarim Rabba 5:6)
Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba (11) expands this redemptive power to the Davidic dynasty and even to God Himself!
One who performs mishpat u-tzdaka and supports many people, about him Scripture says, “Redeems my soul in peace” (Tehillim 55:19). At that moment the Holy One, blessed be He, says, “Who redeemed Me from the place of My Presence,[9] and redeems the Jewish people from exile? One who performs tzedaka u-mishpat”…[10]
When the Jews perform mishpat u-tzdaka, what is said about them? “[God] loves tzedaka u-mishpat” (Tehillim 33:5). And when the Jews do not perform mishpat u-tzdaka, what is said about them? “Truth went missing [… God was upset, for there was no mishpat]” (Yeshayahu 59:15).[11]
The passage ends by addressing the Davidic monarchy directly:
House of David, why are you sitting? What do you seek? The days of the Messiah and the redemption? “House of David, so said God: adjudicate mishpat in the morning, and rescue the robbed from the embezzler” (Yirmeyahu 21:12)!
The key to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, Tanna De-vei Eliyahu explains, is hiding in plain sight, in Sefer Yirmeyahu! If only the people and the leadership would together heed the calling of Parashat Vayera and its echoes in the mouths of the prophets, “My salvation will arrive imminently, and My generosity will be revealed.”[12]
The next shiur will continue this survey of tzedaka u-mishpat within Torah She-be’al Peh.
Questions or Comments?
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[1] Prof. Moshe Weinfeld presumes that the obligation of pursuing tzedaka u-mishpat falls primarily upon the monarchy and only secondarily upon individuals (see Mishpat U-tzdaka Be-Yisrael U-ve’amim, 125-128). From the evidence in Tanakh and Chazal, I come to the opposite conclusion: pursuit of tzedaka u-mishpat, as the legacy of Avraham, is the joint mission of all Jews, but the monarchy is uniquely situated to advance these values in practice.
[2] Noting the recurrent usage of “oseh tzedaka u-mishpat,” Midrash Zuta comments that “only one who is used to doing so regularly will do so” (Rut 1:2). In other words, the aspiration is not just to perform tzedaka u-mishpat sporadically, but to become, like Avraham, a reliable executer of tzedaka u-mishpat.
[3] Prof. Weinfeld compares the conclusion of the verse to Bereishit 18:18 (125-126).
[4] “Knowledge of My ways” echoes both knowledge of God in Yirmeyahu 9:23, 22:16 and “ways of God” in Bereishit 18:19. Also see Hoshea 4:1 and Radak.
[5] Also see Hoshea 6:3, 6 and Radak, and Mikha 6:6-8. The haftara for Parashat Tzav, which begins with Yirmeyahu 7:21-23 and concludes with 9:22-23 (see Rambam, end of Sefer Ahava), also conveys this message.
[6] Also see Hoshea 12:7 and Radak, as well as Makkot 24a.
[7] In the previous shiur, we distinguished between “tzedek” and “tzedaka,” and for that reason I have restricted myself to citing verses that specifically refer to tzedaka only. However, Chazal sometimes equate them, as in this case. Perhaps we can differentiate between “tzedek” as a modifier of or in conjunction with “mishpat” (as in Vayikra 19:15; Devarim 1:16, 16:18-20) and “tzedek” juxtaposed with “mishpat” (as in this verse and Hoshea 2:21, which will be discussed in the following shiur). Also see Midrash Tehillim 24:1 regarding Iyov 29:14 and Rashi on Mishlei 1:3 (as well as 2:9).
[8] The Midrash seems to be reading the word “ki” as “because,” instead of as “for.”
[9] The original Hebrew text seems to be corrupted here; I have amended it in line with the continuation of the paragraph. I presume that God is being redeemed from self-imposed exile with the Jews; compare, for instance, to another interpretation in Shemot Rabba 30:22:
“For My salvation will arrive imminently” — it does not say: for your salvation is near, but “My salvation.” May His name be blessed! Were it not written, it could not be said! The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Jewish people, “If you do not have merit, I will do so for My own sake. It is as if the whole time that you are suffering [in exile], I am with you, as it says, ‘I am with him in suffering’ (Tehillim 91:15).”
Also see Shiur #22, “For Further Thought” #2.
[10] According to the Ish-Shalom edition, there is a small gap in the manuscript here.
[11] Also see the preceding verse: “Mishpat retreated, and tzedaka stays away.”
[12] Also see Tanna De-vei Eliyahu Rabba, 18: “When the Jewish people perform tzedaka u-mishpat, the Holy One, blessed be He, is happy with them.” Chazal also reference Yeshayahu’s prophecies with regard to tzedaka and mishpat individually. See Shabbat 139a; Bava Batra 10a; Shemot Rabba 30:12, 19-20, 22; and Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim, 3.