Parshas Mishpatim – Small Gestures, Major Results

How much is a small gesture worth?

Consider the following.

Children are on the school bus on the way home from a grueling day at school. The bus driver barks at the children. The children’s already edgy mood is exacerbated.  They come home and fight with their siblings. This drives their mother crazy. She takes it out on her husband who, in turn, kicks the cat.

The poor cat got kicked because the bus driver screamed at the kids.

The Torah teaches us this concept in a surprising place.

Expounding on the verse in this week’s Torah portion, “A bribe you shall not take,” the Talmud tells a number of fascinating stories about how careful the Rabbis were not to take bribes.

One example:

The Talmudic sage Shmuel was walking across a bridge. A certain man approached him and gave him his hand for support. Making small talk with the man, Shmuel asked him – “What brings you to town?” The man answered that he had a lawsuit to be tried in Shmuel’s court. Shmuel immediately replied – “I cannot judge you!”

The small favor of assisting him in crossing the bridge was enough to be considered a bribe in Shmuel’s eyes to the extent that he felt the need to recuse himself from the case.

Other cases include rabbis refusing to judge cases where one of the parties took a feather off the rabbi’s head or covered up spittle that was before him.

While these examples may seem somewhat extreme, the simple lesson is how far one must go to avoid even the appearance of partiality when tasked with the responsibility of judging between two parties.

But there may be a deeper lesson as well. The Talmud may be impressing on us how much minor acts of kindness really do affect us. Surely we all can remember a time when we were in a bad place, and a small gesture, a kind word or compliment, brightened up our mood and changed how we felt.

By telling us that such gestures can actually be considered bribes, the Talmud is teaching us both how appreciative we must be of small kindnesses done to us by others and how quick we should be to practice small acts of kindness that can brighten someone’s day.

Consider our initial scenario in reverse, and realize that random acts of kindness can create a butterfly effect that produces a storm of goodness in the world.

Go ahead and try it. Somewhere out there, a cat will thank you.

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