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How We Treat Others Comes First

The Torah proclaims: “These are the statutes that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21). This is then followed by a detailed list of commandments required to build a just and thriving society. For instance, the consequences for murder, manslaughter, kidnapping are stealing are addressed.

Here are a few more examples of the detailed laws enumerated in this week’s reading:
When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, the person who started the fire must make restitution.
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to your enemy.
The Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, comments: the portion’s opening verse that concludes with the words “before them” means the Torah teaches that civil law, namely the commandments between human beings and his or her fellow, come before anything else, before the mitzvot between human beings and God.

Too often people think that religion, and Hasidism most especially, is all about how we approach God. It is not. Instead, it is first and foremost about how we approach each other. Judaism reminds us, and I quite frequently do so as well, that if we don’t do that right, if we don’t treat other human beings with dignity and respect, then we really have no business coming before God.

This is why the laws about how to build civil (civilized?) society appear even before the Torah’s instructions for the building of the tabernacle. Judaism is not so much about what we do in the synagogue but instead how we speak, and treat, the person standing right by our side.

The synagogue is supposed to further that holy purpose. The building of a just society, whose foundation are the laws given in the Torah, is our foremost concern. All the prayers we might offer are really about strengthening that goal.

How we treat other people will always be what God is most concerned about.

And that is exactly what we should be most concerned about as well. 

How we treat others precedes all else.