The sidra opens with an appeal. To our generation, appeals for good causes come daily. Thanks to appeals we can build schools, synagogues and old age homes; we can ensure our children are educated and the disadvantaged are supported. We sometimes grumble about giving, but we are generous.
So what appeal does the sidra launch? A call for gold, silver and copper to enable the sanctuary to be constructed. Yet whilst you might have thought the project was so important that it should follow the Ten Commandments, the sidra of Mishpatim intervenes and first we are informed of the ethical laws that are essential in a just society. “The Torah placed Mishpatim before T’rumah,” we are told, “to teach that an offering from honestly gained means is acceptable before the Holy One, but one from assets gained through dishonest or unjust means is not acceptable.”
An analogy is found in the rabbinic observation that there are ten Hebrew words in the blessing for bread, as there are at least ten ethical requirements involved in bread production. Before making Motzi a person should ensure the way the bread has come to the table is as kosher as are the actual ingredients.
These are some of the ten requirements: At the time of ploughing: “Do not plough with an ox and an ass yoked together”: the differing paces at which the animals go will make both suffer. At the time of sowing: “Do not sow your field with kilayim“, an unnatural grafting of two kinds of corn. When the corn is threshed: “Do not muzzle the ox when it treads the corn”: it will enrage the ox if he cannot eat. In the course of harvesting, you must let the poor and underprivileged come and share the bounty. And since the Torah gives priests and Levites no land, their needs are the responsibility of the people.
Means matter, not just ends. To prosper is important, but not if we have no scruples about how we get there. No amount of charity can whitewash a record of unethical business practice. Fortunately, the business community itself is developing a conscience after the scandals of recent years, and there is more interest in business ethics than ever before. Not before time.