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Wagon wheel tracks in the snow

01/27/2022 01:56:19 PM


Rabbi Steven Folberg

This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, provides the "fine print" to the 10 Commandments that we just read in last week's portion. In Saturday’s portion,  Mishpatim, the grand principles of the 10 Commandments are broken down for daily use in the form of all sorts of laws regarding justice, human relations and respectful treatment of your neighbor's property.

In Chapter 23, verse 7 of the book of Exodus, we find the following "riff” on the Commandment about "not bearing false witness against your neighbor:"

"Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and those in the right, for I [God] will not acquit the wrongdoer."

The context for this rule is preventing perjury in court cases. But the word sheker, translated here as "false charge,” simply means "falsehood" or "lie." So the verse is extended by our commentators to the idea that we should stay away from any kind of falsehood, from any kind of lie.

The Hafetz Hayim, an important Jewish scholar who was particularly concerned with people not using words to hurt each other (as in lying, and especially, gossip) told this story in relation to our verse about "keeping far from falsehood:"

"A certain villager once went for a ride in his wagon on a winter's night. It was very cold outside. When he arrived at a tavern, he went inside and drank one glass of wine after another, until he became drunk. In the meantime, a great snow fell outside and covered the road so that the path was buried. And because he was drunk, he did not wait until the morning light came up, but instead sat in his wagon while his horse went on its way through the snow and cut its own path. Morning came, and many of the villagers got up and saw a smooth path, and thought that this must be the road to town. They all traveled down that road, and it never occurred to them that this road had been paved for them by a drunkard."

It's a great story, and a terrific metaphor! Others pay attention to the road we walk, to the path we take. And the human power of rationalization to justify behavior being what it is, it's a short road from "so-and-so did it" to "everybody does it, how bad can it be?”

This can be a challenging teaching in our particular cultural time and place. We are apt to bristle at the idea that we need to pay attention to the impression that our behavior leaves with others, because we know the destructive psychological and social effects of "caring too much about what other people think." But the parable of the wagon tracks in the snow challenges us to nevertheless consider the example that we are setting not only for our children, but also for our peers.

The road of integrity is often bumpy and winding, often jostling and uncomfortable. The shortcut may seem smoother, easier, quicker – but at what cost?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Steven Folberg

Mon, February 6 2023 15 Sh'vat 5783