This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim- meaning, laws. Following last week’s reading of the Giving of the Torah, it is unsurprising that a great number of laws are now presented to the Jewish People.
Among the many ideas detailed here, we find two which, while seemingly unrelated to each other, come together to teach a lesson…
..and you shall not eat meat torn in the field- throw it to the dog.’
You shall not utter a false report…
The Talmud sees their proximity to one another as a moral admonishment:
‘One who speaks or accepts slander is fit to be thrown to the dogs.’
-Gemara Makot 23a
This reading is based on the Talmudic explanation of the prohibition of bearing a false report to also include speaking and accepting lashon harah, slander, about other people.
While we know that slander is a terrible thing, it’s less clear why one who speaks or accepts it is described in this way; what connection does this sin have to dogs- and being thrown to them?
Let’s examine another teaching on this verse, which explains why we throw this non-kosher meat to the dogs, of all animals, to begin with:
This is to teach that God does not withhold reward from any creature- as it says, ‘And to all of Bne Israel a dog shall not bark…’ (Bo,11:7)
-The above verse preceded B’nei Israel’s dramatic exit from Egypt. Despite all of the chaos that the Plague of the Firstborn, Makat Bechorot, had engendered in the country, and with Bne Israel on the verge of departure after finally having been given permission to leave by Pharaoh, the dogs of the land were silent (to B’nei Israel, at least). They did not bark- and so as a reward, we now give them the meat that we cannot eat.
We should ask, though: how is this reward related to their restraint? Being that Hashem pays back ‘measure for measure’, giving dogs meat should be conceptually linked to their not having barked years ago. What’s the connection?
To answer this question, we need to figure out an even more basic point: what is so significant about the dogs not having barked- is it just the fact that they retrained themselves from annoying or scaring Bne Israel, or is there more to it than that?
Dogs are interesting animals: courageous, smart, and very expressive. Known collectively as ‘Man’s best friend’, dogs’ loyalty and human-like tendencies endear them to their owners more than any other domestic animals. Their combination of openness and devotion (as opposed to cats’ reserved and coy nature, for example) means that they rarely betray their masters. Even when threatened or attacked, (untrained) dogs bark loudly and engage in ‘open combat’; they remain open about their feelings and intentions, rather than resorting to silence and surprise attacks- such is their nature.
Although these characteristics are generally positive ones, they also carry negative aspects. For example, if a dog did inexplicably turn on its owner and acted as it always does- openly and without reservations- how would its owner feel about such an attack? On the one hand, it wasn’t in an under-handed and deceptive way- which highlights the dog’s loyalty, as it would never betray its master ‘going behind the master’s back’. On the other hand, the openness of its rebellion-‘to the master’s face’- makes it that much more brazen and disrespectful- a ‘chutzpah’. The inverse, destructive element of dogs’ loyalty and openness, then, is brazenness– explaining a prophet’s description:
‘The dogs are brazen souls…’
This also sheds light on an expression of the Talmud discussing a world leader in the generation that Mashiach will arrive (the following quotes are paraphrased):
‘Their leader will have the face of the dog’
-Knowing that the Rabbis of the Mishnah also observed that
‘the generation in which Mashiach will come will increase in chutzpah’
the comparison of the leader in question to a dog becomes clear: he will exhibit the brazen dimension of the dog, thus epitomizing the generation’s own brazenness.
Now we can start the way back to our initial questions. The Maharsha, legendary Talmud commentator, actually ties the two teachings- that (1) dogs receive non-kosher meat for not having barked in Egypt, and that (2) one who slanders is worthy of being thrown to the dogs- together:
He is worthy of being thrown to the dogs, about whom it says: ‘and to all of B’nei Israel a dog did not bark…’.
-In other words, a person who does not control his mouth is worse than dogs, who did at least control their mouths in Egypt. But what was the meaning of this self-control, at that particular time and setting? Perhaps we can suggest a novel approach; although this interpretation may seem a reach, it could be a neat explanation of our deep gratitude for the dogs’ silence. If you think about it, B’nei Israel was in the process of escaping its master. The people, who had been subjected to years of crushing labor and cruel torture, had been officially released by Pharaoh; they could now rejoice in their newfound physical and spiritual freedom. Could they be seen somehow as ungrateful for their stay in Egypt? After all, the Torah does teach that we must show appreciation for their ‘hospitality’ (in the period before their despicable treatment of us):
‘Do not abhor the Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land.’
-Ki Teitzei, 23:9
-and so our joy may be seen as out of place. Hashem’s taking us out of Egypt in the open – and even getting official ‘permission’ from Pharaoh to take us- showed that we were not going behind their backs; if anything, we were showing brazenness, but not disloyalty. Who, then, could vouch for us more than anyone else in the loyalty department? The Egyptians’ dogs. They, experts in loyalty whose nature leads them to either devotion or brazenness, remained silent. They did not bark as if there was a disrespect shown here- and this in turn is explained by our real allegiance- to Hashem, for He alone was and is our only Master. The dogs’ silence, then, conveyed to us and to the world that we had nothing to hide- and only need rejoice in our real freedom, to serve Hashem properly.
Let’s see if we can continue this next week.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.