M'oray Ha'Aish Parshat Mishpatim: These Are the Laws
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Mishpatim(Exodus 21-24)

These Are the Laws

This week's Torah portion begins with the words of God directed to Moses:

"These are the mishpatim (i. e. laws, judgments, ordinances) that you shall set before them." (Exodus 21:1)

In the aftermath of the Ten Commandments, the Torah proceeds with an extensive list of laws. On the one hand, it is difficult for us to imagine Judaism without these laws; in a sense, they serve as the core of Jewish life. On the other hand, the sequence of events in the Torah is challenging: Why are these laws taught at this juncture?

Generally, there is intrigue regarding the order of events in the Torah, and the question whether the sequence of events as recorded in the text reflects the actual order of their occurrence is hotly debated by the commentators.

In the instance of Parshat Mishpatim, this portion of the Torah may be divided into two basic sections -- law and narrative. The narrative section is the continuation of the theosophy depicted in chapters 19 and 20 of the Book of Exodus, but this follows the legal section. Therefore, we cannot help but give our attention to the choice of laws taught at this juncture, whose enumeration effectively "interrupts" the story of the revelation.

Indeed, the major emphasis of Parshat Mishpatim is law, the type which any society is in need of in order to live peacefully and equitably.

 

* * *

 

SOCIAL CONTRACT

In a sense, many of these laws may be described as a type of social contract. Once again, we must ask why this contract is needed at this point. Arguably, the Torah could have waited until later to lay out these laws, at the point where many other social laws are introduced.

(This question was posed by Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik and is characteristic of his broad-based approach to the text. He asked not only what something meant, but what we can learn from the sequence in which it is presented, and where, a priori, the most logical context would have been for that teaching.)

The Jews were expected to build a new society, based on the newly-received Torah.

Some commentators see in Parshat Mishpatim an extension of the laws taught at Sinai, and therefore see these laws as fitting into the ten categories reflected in the Ten Commandments.

The Sforno sees the interpersonal laws which begin here as an extension of the Tenth Commandment -- "Do not covet... all which belongs to your neighbor." In order to be able to implement this teaching, ownership laws must first establish what belongs to you and what belongs to your neighbor, setting boundaries and thus making the fulfillment of the Tenth Commandment feasible.

However, there may be a simple suggestion to explain the "social contract" set up at this point: The Jews were expected to build a new society, based on the newly-received Torah. Therefore, it is essential to describe the basic bylaws expected of this new society. In a sense, this will be the litmus test of their acceptance of the Torah. If they can implement the Torah and live according to Torah law, acceptance of the Torah is complete.

This observation gives us entree to a deeper level of the relationship between the books of Genesis and Exodus, a relationship to which we have made reference on other occasions.

 

* * *

 

TEN STATEMENTS

We know that the Ten Commandments stand out as the epicenter of the relationship between man and God.

According to the rabbinic understanding of the Torah, creation was accomplished via ten deliberate statements [see Avot chapter 6:1]. Therefore, we may say that the world was created via ten statements, the brutal Egyptian regime was destroyed via ten plagues, and the Jews were elevated via the Ten Commandments.

Conceptually, we may describe this process as one of creation, destruction, and re-creation.

In Genesis, after creation there was destruction, the deluge which struck the generation of Noah. Significantly, the impetus for this punishment was the lack of a social contract, which resulted in a generation run amok.

The Midrash links the destruction of that generation with the very laws (or lack of observance of the laws) enumerated in this week's Parsha:

The end (kez) of all flesh (basar) is come before me: The time has come for them to be cut down (hikkazez); the time has come for them to be treated as unripe grapes (boser); the term of their indictments has come.

Why all this? Because the earth is filled with violence (hamas) through them. What is violence and what is robbery?

Said R. Hanina: "Violence refers to what is worth a perutah; robbery refers to what is of less value than a perutah. And this is what the people of the age of the Flood used to do: When a man brought out a basket full of lupines, one would come and seize less than a perutah's worth and then everyone would come and seize less than a perutah's worth, so that he had no redress at law. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said: 'You have acted improperly, so will I too deal with you improperly.' Hence it is written, Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them? They die, and that without wisdom. (Job 4:21): i.e. without the wisdom of the Torah. Between morning and evening they are shattered; they perish forever without any regarding (mesim) it (Job 4:20). Now mesim can only refer to judgment, as you read, Now these are the laws which you shall set (tasim) before them. (Exodus 21:1)." (Genesis Rabbah 31:5)

The relationship between the generation of the Flood and the laws of Parshat Mishpatim is further noted by another Midrash:

Another explanation of Now these (ve'eleh) are the laws:

Rabbi Abbahu said: "Wherever it is written ve'eleh ('and these'), it indicates an addition to objects previously mentioned, but where it is written eleh ('these'), it indicates the disqualification of the preceding. For example? These (eleh) are the generations of the heaven and the earth when they were created. (Genesis 2:4) What was disqualified there? God created a heaven and earth, but when He looked at them they were not pleasing in His sight, so He changed them back into waste and void; but when He looked at this [i.e., the present] heaven and earth, it pleased Him, and He exclaimed, These shall have generations. Hence, These are the generations of the heaven and the earth; but the first did not have any generations. Another example: These (eleh) are the generations of Noah (Genesis 6:9). What was disqualified? The generations of Enosh, the Flood, Kenan and his companions..."(Exodus Rabbah 30:3)

 

* * *

 

JUSTICE ABOVE, JUSTICE BELOW

In the words of the rabbis, if there is no justice "below" justice will reign from "above":

Rabbi Eleazar said: "Wherever there is no judgment [below] there is judgment [above]."

Rabbi Bibi, the son of Rabbi Ammi, interpreted, following Rabbi Leazar: "If they have not judged, then My spirit [will judge man]."

Rabbi Meir said: "If they did not perform judgment below, am I too not to perform judgment above! Thus it is written, Is not their tent-cord plucked up within them? They die, and that without wisdom (Job 4L 21): i.e. through lacking the wisdom of the Torah. Between morning and evening they are shattered; they perish forever without any regarding (mesim) it (Job 4:20). Now mesim can only refer to judgment, as you read, Now these are the laws [judgments] which you shall set (tasim) before them (Exodus 21:1)."

Rabbi Yossi the Galilean interpreted: "No more shall My Attribute of Justice be suppressed [lit. 'judged'] before My Attribute of Mercy." (Genesis Rabbah 26:6)

If we then chart the parallel between Genesis and Exodus, we come to the realization that this was the perfect time to teach justice, in order to avoid the disastrous pitfalls which plagued man in Genesis. Immediately after the re-creation signified by the Ten Commandments, specific interpersonal laws needed to be taught.

This was the perfect time to teach justice.

However, the emphasis on justice and creating a just society runs somewhat deeper. The Midrash cited above makes reference to God's justice being suppressed:

Rabbi Yossi the Galilean interpreted: "No more shall My Attribute of Justice be suppressed [lit. 'judged'] before My Attribute of Mercy." (Genesis Rabbah 26:6)

 

* * *

 

NAMES OF GOD

In order to understand this idea we must note that different names for God are used in the Torah. The name Elohim signifies justice, and the description of creation uses this appellation for God.

Creation is based on justice. Justice can then be said to be a rule of nature, along with all other natural law. Just as God can suspend natural law at will and perform miracles, so too can God choose to suspend justice, and allow mercy to rule.

Another explanation of Now these are the laws:

It is written, The king by justice establishes the land (Proverbs 29:4). This refers to the Holy One, blessed be He, who created the world with justice, as it says, In the beginning, God (Elohim) created (Genesis 1:1). It does not say "the Lord (Adonai) created," but Elohim; likewise, not, "And the Lord (Adonai) said: Let there be a firmament," but "God (Elohim) said, etc., and similarly the rest. Thus, too, said David: For God (Elohim) is Judge. (Psalms 75: 8) to teach you that the world was created with justice. (Exodus Rabbah 30:13)

The name Elohim is also used at Sinai as an introduction to the Ten Commandments: And Elohim said all of these things saying. The Midrash sees Sinai as the source of justice being "unleashed," effectively redefining man's relationship with God.

Another explanation of Now these are the ordinances:

[It is written], And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning (Exodus 19:16). In the morning the Torah was given, and in the evening the laws, as it is written, Between morning and evening they are shattered (Job 4:20). It can be compared to two men who entered an arena [for combat], one a professional, the other an amateur. What caused the amateur to be defeated? The fact that he had no one to instruct him. So God stood on Sinai, holding justice, as it says, And My hand take hold on judgment (Deut. 32: 41). (Exodus Rabbah 30:11)

And the lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai ... Why "Mount of God"? Because God sat there in judgment; as it is said, Now these are the judgments (Exodus 21, 1). (Numbers Rabbah 1:8)

 

* * *

 

A NEW ORDER

Sinai was meant to create a new order. The Midrash sees a link between Sinai, slavery and the original creation:

Another explanation of Now these are the ordinances:

It is written, [A Psalm] of Shlomo. Give the king Thy judgments, O God ... that he may judge Thy people with righteousness.(Psalms 72:1).

Rabbi said: "Just as God enjoined obedience to the Ten Commandments, so did He exhort us concerning justice, because on it the world rests, as it says, The king by justice establishes the land (Proverbs 29:4). Through it also shall Zion be rebuilt, for it says, Zion shall be redeemed with justice (Isaiah 1:27); and through it the righteous became great, for it says, Happy are they that keep justice (Psalms 106: 3). You will find that there are many ordinances of this character. Because the Holy One, blessed be He, said: I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2). What does it say of a Hebrew servant? If you buy a Hebrew servant... (Exodus 21:2). God said: "As I created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, so for six years shall he serve you, after which he goes forth a free man." (Exodus Rabbah 30:15)

Here we see the basic expression of creation; Shabbat is linked thematically with the first of the Ten Commandments, and the first law in Parshat Mishpatim. The emphasis, though, is on justice.

The Sfat Emet (Mishpatim 5639), commenting on a different Midrash, explains that the relationship between the Mishpatim and the Ten Commandments is analogous to the relationship between Shabbat and the week. Just as we work all week and then receive an additional soul on Shabbat -- an expression of heightened spirituality -- so, too, do we receive additional spirituality from these laws after the acceptance of the Ten Commandments. While this concept merits further explanation, within this teaching lies the core role of the laws of Parshat Mishpatim.

 

* * *

 

A WORLD WITHOUT JUSTICE

The role of the performance of justice is a Divine occupation, as we have seen. The world without justice is, in effect, rebelling against natural law. When man acts justly, he becomes a partner with the Divine. [It is important to note that Jewish judges are referred to as elohim in the Biblical text]:

Every judge who judges with complete fairness even for a single hour, the Writ gives him credit as though he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in creation. (Shabbat 10a)

When judgement is executed with equity in this world, man becomes a partner with God, and therefore Divine justice is averted.

The Midrash goes further:

Another explanation of Now these are the ordinances:

It is written: Keep justice, and do righteousness (Isaiah 56:1). This bears out what Scripture says: These also are the sayings of the wise. To have respect of persons in judgment is not good (Proverbs 24:23). The Holy One, blessed be He, said: "What caused the judges to know how to judge? The fact that you received the Torah in which is written, These are the statutes and the laws, etc." (Deut. 12:1). Know, therefore, that To have respect of persons in judgment is not good. What is the lesson of, It is not good? This: when the judge sits and judges in truth, God, as it were, leaves His topmost heaven and causes His Presence to be at the judge's side, for it says, And when the Lord raised them up judges then the Lord was with the judge" (Shoftim 2, 18). But when He sees that he respects persons, He removes His Presence and goes back to Heaven. The angels then say to Him: "Lord of the Universe! What is the matter?" He replies: "I saw a judge who respects persons and I have removed Myself from thence," as it says, For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, said the Lord (Psalms 12:6). What does God do? He draws His sword in front of him to remind him that there is a Judge above, as it says, Be afraid of the sword; for wrath brings the punishments of the sword, that you may know there is a judgment (Job 19:29). It is written she-din, namely, that there is a judgment in the world. (Exodus Rabbah 30:24)

When man judges fairly God's Presence, the Shechina, enters the world. Man has the capability of bringing the presence of God down to this world, and causing God's wrathful justice to be suppressed. The key is the performance of justice on the part of man.

 

* * *

 

THE PRESENCE OF GOD

The presence of God was felt at Sinai. The Vilna Gaon explained (commentary to Sifra Dezniuta chapter 1) that after Sinai, the next command should have been the building of the Tabernacle. After all, the purpose of the Tabernacle was to "house" the Shechina that had descended to earth at Sinai, thus turning a one-time event into an ongoing relationship between man and God, an institution in Judaism.

Why, then, the "interruption" of laws which are taught in Parshat Mishpatim, the basics of justice? The Gaon explained that the performance of justice accomplishes the same goal: it brings the Shechina to earth.

The location of Israel's greatest seat of justice illustrates this point: The Sanhedrin sat on the Temple Mount, for if justice did not emanate from that holy mountain, the Temple itself could not stand.

The converse is also true: If we truly wish to rebuild Zion and cause the Shechina to once again dwell among us, the starting point is the establishment of justice:

Another explanation of Now these are the ordinances:

It is written, The strength of a king who loves justice (Psalms 99:4). Moses said to Israel: "See, God gave you His Torah; unless you obey His laws, He will take away His Torah from you, for God has only given you the Torah on the condition that you obey His laws, for it says, The strength of a king who loves justice."

If you do obey His laws, God will restore your courts of law, for it says, And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and after this it says, Zion shall be redeemed with justice (Isaiah 1:26- 27). (Exodus Rabbah 30:23)

Published: February 12, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Dusan Milutinovic, February 20, 2004 12:00 AM

beautiful

This is so well-written. As much as there is yet to say, nevertheless, the essence of the passages seems to be perfectly encapsulated by the writer.

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