Mishpatim and Chesed
The Torah portion opens with the following exclamation:
And it shall come to pass, if you listen to these mishpatim and you guard them and do them, that the Lord your God will guard the covenant for you and the kindness which He swore to your forefathers. (Devarim 7:12)
The selection of mishpatim (social ordinances) by this verse is intriguing. The mishpatim are only one part of the Torah system. There are also sections of laws called eidos (testimonies) and chukkim (statutes). Why are these other sections not mentioned? Does the verse imply that it is only necessary to observe the mishpatim to ensure that God will guard the covenant? Surely klal Yisrael must diligently keep the whole Torah, not just parts of it. Secondly, three types of observance are mentioned here. Apparently, we must "listen," "guard," and "do" the mishpatim. What is the significance of this?
We will not be surprised to discover that these three means of observance cover the entire gamut of human experience. We have mentioned before that the seichel (intellect), nefesh (emotional soul), and guf (body) represent the whole of our world. Everything that happens to us is either an intellectual, emotional, or physical experience, or a combination thereof. Listening corresponds to the intellect, for it is essentially a process of acceptance, an intellectual experience which takes place in the brain. Guarding corresponds to the emotional aspect of life, which is centered around the heart. The word for "guarding" which occurs here is shemirah, which means "to long for" or "desire." We see this in the following:
And his father guarded [shamar] the matter.(Bereishis 37:11)
Guarded the matter - he waited and yearned for when it would come about... (Rashi loc. cit.)
A feeling of yearning is of course an emotional experience. Indeed, even the word for the emotional soul, nefesh, can mean desire:
He said to them, saying, "If it is your desire [nefesh] to bury my dead..." (Bereishis 23:8)
Finally, it is clear that doing corresponds to the body, for action is the physical aspect of the mitzvos.
This said, it is hard to see what relevance desire and yearning have to mishpatim. A mishpat happens when, for example, there is a dispute between two parties who want clarification as to what to do. Punishments meted out for certain crimes may also be referred to as mishpatim. We understand that the mishpat has intellectual and active content, which accounts for the need for listening and doing as recorded by the verse. However, in what way can one yearn (the guarding component) for mishpat? In fact, the opposite appears to be true - it would be preferable if there were never disputes or crimes which necessitated mishpatim.
* * *
MISHPATIM ON HIGH
To understand this, we need to revise our picture of the extent to which mishpatim are relevant. As with all human activity on earth, mishpatim have a counterpart in the heavenly spheres. When klal Yisrael pronounce a judgment in a legal framework, this has ramifications in heaven, arousing Divine mishpat. If, for example, the terrestrial beis din deals with a monetary dispute, eventually allocating a sum of money to its rightful owner, this engenders a corresponding spiritual force on high. In practice, this means that any spiritually bad forces will not approach anything which does not belong to them. Although this is a deep mystical concept, the parallel at least is apparent.
This explains why Yisrael may indeed yearn for mishpatim. Klal Yisrael are supposed to direct all of their energies into serving God and to pay little regard to their own issues and circumstances. As such, they should actively yearn for mishpatim in order to ensure a suitable rectification on high, in which the domains of the forces of good and evil are clarified.
This helps us to understand why the verse chooses to emphasize mishpatim rather than eidos or chukkim. It is mishpatim particularly which accentuate the special character of Yisrael. A desire for eidos and chukkim does not show any particular level of self-abnegaton on behalf of Yisrael. Not so mishpatim, which, as we have seen, are not at all desirable at a normal human level. The fact that Yisrael nevertheless desire them, knowing the great spiritual rectification that they can effect, demonstrates a special quality present in the national character of the people.
We now appreciate why the Torah chooses desire for mishpatim to be the litmus test of Yisrael's commitment to God. With this, we can explain the end of the verse:
...that the Lord your God will guard the covenant for you and the kindness which He swore to your forefathers. (Devarim 7:12)
This is also difficult to comprehend, for it implies that the merit of the Avos will apply only when klal Yisrael perform the will of God. Our usual understanding of zechus Avos, the remaining merit of the Forefathers, is that it stands for Yisrael even when they are not at their zenith of mitzvah performance. Additionally, these words were addressed to the nation as they stood in the desert, at their peak of connection to God, at a moment when they probably did not need the merit of the Avos to maintain them.
An interesting gemara will help to answer this. Our Sages note that even an apostate will inherit his father's property upon his death. Despite the fact that he has cut himself off from the ways of his father, the Torah still allows him to inherit. This is deduced from Eisav, who was regarded as an apostate Jew but still warranted an inheritance:
...for as an inheritance to Eisav I have given Mount Seir. (Devarim 2:5)
This has substantial consequences, namely, that Eisav, despite his evil nature, has some claim to klal Yisrael's inheritance, for he is genuinely related to them. When God offers Eretz Yisrael to them on the basis of zechus Avos, Eisav can step in and claim a portion of the inheritance. He is, after all, a direct descendant of the Avos. But when Yisrael guard the mishpatim of the Torah and desire them, as we have described above, then they show their ability to direct everything, even the most mundane aspects of the physical world, toward God and to imbue them with spirituality. In response, God rewards them with the greatest possible good - closeness to Him. From this closeness, every manifestation of good in the physical world will flow. Since the origin of this good is in the spiritual, Godly realm, Eisav, who is a thoroughly coarse and physically oriented being, has no attachment to it at all. Through this, then, God guarantees Yisrael's permanent and unique relationship with Him. One may infer this from the wording of the verse. We are assured that God will "guard the covenant for you..." If klal Yisrael do everything as intended by this verse, then the covenant will, and can only be, between them and God, and with no other nation. As such, it will be "for you" and not for others.