Between the Lines—Mishpatim

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Charlie Schwartz

 

Exodus Rabbah, Parashat Mishpatim 16

אם חבל תחבל. אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא, כמה את חייב לי, אתה חוטא לפני ואני ממתין לך, ונפשך עולה אצלי בכל יום ובכל אמש ואמש ונותנת דין וחשבון והיא מתחייבה, אני מחזיר לך את נפשך שאתה חייב לי. אף אתה אף על פי שהוא חייב לך, אם חבל תחבל, עד בא השמש תשיבנו לו

 

 "If you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets" (Exodus 22:25). The Holy One Blessed be He said, "How much are you indebted to Me? You sin before Me and I wait for you, your soul comes up to Me every day and every evening and judgment is passed on it and it is due to Me. Yet, I return your soul to you even though you are indebted to Me. And so you, even though they are indebted to you, 'if you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets.'"

This week's midrash provides a striking metaphor for the nature of our existence in the world. Like the destitute person who has given his only garment as collateral on a loan, we are often destitute in our moral stature. We make mistakes, error, and sin. According to the midrash, every evening God takes our souls as we sleep as collateral for the spiritual debts we owe. And every morning, in spite of our failings, our souls are returned to us.

The message of this midrash is simultaneously terrifying and inspiring: we live in a constant state of debt to God, almost always in the red and rarely in the black. Yet, at the same time, God understands this and stands ready to grant forgiveness for our errors and debts at every moment. Every evening, when our soul rises up to God, we are judged; meaning, every day we have the opportunity to do better, to improve, to slowly pay off our spiritual debts. And when we fall behind in those payments, by returning the collateral on our debt—by returning our soul—God is reaffirming God's faith in us: we can do better and we can change.