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Ideals and Details Bookmark and Share
Ideals and Details
By: Rabbi Berel Wein

It was a wise man who said that "the devil is in the details." As a lawyer, I became painfully aware that general agreements and apparent meetings of the mind often came undone in the formulation of the details. All of the great general hopes and desires of life - love, family, career, kindness, purpose - are subject to the modification of details. And if the details don't work out, then the grandest and noblest ideas, goals, and theories are meaningless.

After the great ideas and declamations of the Ten Commandments - ideas to which all of Israel pledged loyalty and obedience - the Torah fleshed out those great principles with the details of how they were to be applied in everyday behavior. It is one thing to subscribe to the concept of honesty and kindness, but how does that concept translate into behavior in adversarial business relationships? Everyone wants to be a kind and efficient boss, but how is that possible in a world of labor unions, recalcitrant employees, and intense financial pressures? I want to be a good neighbor, but what if my neighbor is raucous or disturbing to me and my property? Do fences really make for good neighbors? And what does the G-d of Israel really mean by saying that "you shall not steal"? What are the rules regarding competition, advertising, and proper profit-pricing? How about interest and usury, banking fees, and net discounts for early payments on purchases? And what is our true and real obligation towards the poor, the widow, the orphans, the homeless, and the sick? We all wish to be good people and to serve our Creator, but how can we actualize this desire in our everyday lives? Ah, those pesky details!

The Talmud teaches us that if one wishes to be reckoned a chasid, a truly pious person, he must fulfill the details, the minutiae of the laws of the Talmudic order of nezikin. Nezikin concerns itself with all of the laws that appear in Mishpatim, which deal with relationships between people as enunciated in the Ten Commandments given at Sinai. There is no hope for true piety and service of G-d without working out every aspect of the details. For the holiness of Jewish life lies solely in those details.

We have been witness too often to great and lofty ideals that were transfigured into horror and tyranny because no one was able to work out those details. It is therefore no act of caprice that Jewish children throughout the ages were initiated into the mysteries and glory of Talmudic study by beginning with Nezikin. There are simpler places for novices to begin their study of Talmud. But Jews knew that the purpose of Talmudic study was not merely the acquisition of knowledge and intellect, but rather the development of holiness, goodness, and piety. As such, our children had to get right down to the details immediately, to deal with practical and not merely theoretical goodness, to try and become a chasid by dealing with G-dly details and not just pious generalities. Mishpatim is the rock of goodness upon which all Jewish ideas of fairness and kindness among people are based. This parshah is worthy of our continued attention, study, and fulfillment.