Latest update: October 15th, 2012
Have you ever wondered why Avraham was the first patriarch of the Jewish people? Probably not; the reason is so obvious. We have grown up hearing the stories of the young boy Avram, who questioned the irrational idolatry of his time. We have followed him on his journey of discovery; how he investigated nature, science, each mode of worship – and logically arrived at the conclusion that there has to be One Omnipotent Creator responsible for our existence.
We are amused and impressed by his cleverness when he accuses the largest idol in his father’s store of smashing the others, clearly displaying the folly of stone and wooden gods. We are in awe of his bravery when he stands up to Nimrod, proud to step into the fiery furnace in defense of his convictions. And we are overjoyed when he miraculously steps out unscathed.
Avraham is our patriarch because he is a unique man among men who started a monotheistic revolution. He had no precedent, no teacher, no role model, no mentor, not even direct confirmation from Hashem Himself. All he had was a partner, Sarah, and together they defied an entire generation and brought the knowledge of, and belief in, One God to the masses. Advertisement
Interestingly, this history of Avraham’s revolution, of his passion to teach monotheism to the world, is recorded in the Midrash, but not in the Chumash. The story the Torah tells us about Avraham’s life begins long after his search for God; it begins with Lech Lecha, Hashem’s first communication with Avraham, when God actually sends Avraham away from the place where he is doing some of his best work.
If the Torah does not record Avraham’s struggle to find God, what does it tell us about his mission? The Torah states (Parashat Vayeira 18:19): “Ki yedativ lema’an asher yetzaveh et banav v’et beito acharav veshamru derech Hashem la’asot tzedakah umishpat” – “For I know him, in order that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the ways of Hashem, to do righteousness and justice in the land.”
While not discounting or downplaying the importance of Avraham’s monotheistic legacy, the Torah paints a different picture of Avraham’s mission to humanity. God chose Avraham, not only because Avraham chose God but because Avraham chose to live a Godly life, a life whose cornerstone was tzedakah umishpat, a life that defines Godliness not only by the way we interact with God but by the way we interact with others.
To teach people that the authentic God exists is an admirable and worthy mission. But the Torah is telling us the reason Avraham was chosen to be our patriarch was because he taught people to bring God’s righteousness and justice into their relationships with others.
Consider halacha, Jewish law; it is our directive for how to live our lives. The Shulchan Aruch, the magnum opus that codifies halacha, is composed of four sections, and the largest of the four is Choshen Mishpat.
Choshen Mishpat is not about Shabbat, or the holidays, or prayer, or Torah study. The largest section of Jewish law is about how we treat our fellow human beings in our business dealings. It is about how we treat our employees and how we market our goods. It is about “ha’poel tzarich la’avod b’kol kocho,” that an employee is obligated to give his all at a job, even if his predecessor wasn’t as capable and the expectations are not as high. It is about ona’at mamon, having an obligation to price fairly and not assume that caveat emptor, buyer beware, is an acceptable motto. It is about ona’at devarim, shopping with the intention of buying, and not wasting the time and abusing the knowledge of a worker when there is no intention to transact a sale.
To conduct business in a halachic manner, one must be very knowledgeable in Choshen Mishpat, and that requires diligent study.
One of the themes we focus on during the davening of the High Holidays is that of zechut avot, the merits of our Patriarchs. We invoke the great sacrifices of Avraham, and beg Hashem to let his sacrifices be a merit for us, his descendants. But the real question is, are we worthy descendants of Avraham? Have we recognized and continued his great mission of spreading tzedakah umishpat throughout the land?
It is a tragic reality today that a generation so meticulous in its observance of Shabbat, kashrut and mikveh is so lax in its observance of Choshen Mishpat. It behooves us to understand why such a disproportionate number of our people don’t find a contradiction between going to minyan and cheating on taxes.
We as a community lost our focus during a significant part of the 20th century, when many observant Jews were abandoning Orthodoxy and joining ranks with the Conservative and Reform movements. In response to our dwindling numbers, we stressed the ideas that obviously defined Orthodox Jews from the other denominations (i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, etc.) and placed less emphasis on the more universal religious principles of honesty and integrity.
Unfortunately, this response led to an overemphasis on external forms of religiosity. Nowadays, for example, when inquiring about a shidduch people often will ask where the family davens, or what shechita they eat, but rarely does anyone ask if they engage in honest business practices. People will ask about the length of one’s sleeves and what kind of kippah one wears, but not if one avoids shopping in “cash only” stores.
Back when Orthodoxy was losing droves to the other movements, we needed to define ourselves and make ourselves distinct. In the process, we deemphasized some very important Jewish values. But Judaism cannot be compartmentalized. The system of Torah is one complete entity. How we buy, sell and pay taxes requires as much religiosity as how we dress, daven and eat. The sad reality of today is the fallout of raising a couple of generations without proper zerizut in Choshen Mishpat observance.
I believe, however, that times are changing again. The only positive side of sinking so low is that we can’t help but recognize the need to change and improve. Recently, shuls as well as Jewish schools and communities have begun addressing these fundamental issues; the emphasis on honesty and integrity as prerequisites to spirituality is once again at the forefront. It is the topic of shiurim (on www.ou.org, you can find seventy different shiurim on Choshen Mishpat topics that address various aspects of how sincere Jews conduct business affairs), the theme of retreats, and in the curricula of Jewish day schools.
We have a long way to go; like Avraham we must stem the tide of a generation. But unlike Avraham, we have a road map and a rich and comprehensive system of halacha to follow. And we have Avraham as our patriarch, who began a mission and entrusted us with a legacy to transform humanity with tzedakah umishpat.
This Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we stand before the Ribbono Shel Olam and ask for the opportunity to survive and live the year being His partner in the transformation of humanity, we invoke the claim that we are the true heirs of Avraham Avinu’s legacy.
May we work hard and be zocheh to be worthy children of Avraham, and may Hakadosh Baruch Hu bless our efforts with success, and allow us to make a positive impact on all of mankind.
Rabbi Steven Weil is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. This essay originally appeared in Jewish Action, the quarterly magazine of the Orthodox Union.
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