1 Adar 5781
“We will Do and We will Listen.”
Here in Parashat Mishpatim, Moses is telling the children of Israel about many of the moral and ritual “regulations”- mishpatim. He is also sealing the covenant between them and their God. God had just given them the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, as we saw in the last Parashah, Yitro and here Moses is elaborating upon these Ten with these rules and regulations that they are to follow. Among them are those that promote the humane treatment of slaves and the responsibilities toward them by their masters and owners; the consequences for acts of violence such as murders, kidnappings, assaults and robberies, and regulations on making restitution… as well as various humanitarian regulations such those that warn us against the mistreatment of foreigners.
Moses also lays down certain precepts regarding the celebration of the feasts at their Appointed Times and three special annual festivals known as Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrim festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Succot) when the men would travel to the Temple in Jerusalem bringing special offerings and rejoicing. He also promises victory to the people as they enter Canaan, if they remain obedient to His Commandments all of which are divided into three categories: The Mitzvot (precepts), the “Chukkim” (statutes) and the “mishpatim” (ordinances). The word Mishpatim actually means “civil ordinances” and they are also known as “rational instructions” since they are logical, rational, and understandable. The Mishpatim spell out the clear understanding for the need for laws that prohibit things such as intentional murder, theft, etc.
There are regulations known as “Chukkim” (“Choke” in singular) whose raison d’être is a little more difficult to understand, for example, rules about not combining linen and wool in the same garment. Certainly, there are reasons which we may not fully understand although they do make sense when we consider the practical everyday wear and tear of such a fabric. It can be compared with the regulation of not putting a yoke upon two animals of different strengths. One would have to bear the burden more than the other. This is a rule of compassion. Another choke is “Honor your father and your mother”. This is a “regulation” which we simply have to obey. When one does not honor their father and mother, who are their authority on earth, how will they ever honor their Father in heaven who they do not see.
Hearing the voice of the Bore Olam on Mount Sinai must have been an experience beyond imagination, for all the people. There are those who say that when the Creator spoke, at that moment all sound was stilled, the sea, the rivers, the animals, everything went silent and only the voice of the Almighty was heard. It was most certainly overwhelming, however right after that sublime event, they had to go back to their everyday lives and human relationships. At the time of the giving of the Torah, Moses and the people were “infused” with the Shechinah of the Creator (His Divine Presence). Some compare the giving of the Torah at Sinai to a wedding between the Bore Olam and His people; and as in a wedding, there was great rejoicing. But this is followed by the reality of married life.
In Mishpatim, we find a list of social, personal and community ordinances, which we would commonly call “of lower rank” compared with the heavenly experience of Sinai. It begins by saying: “V’eleh ha mishpatim וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים – And these are the statutes”. “And” in Hebrew is “vav”’ is what connects the teaching of last week’s Parashah, Yitro which contained the Ten Commandments to Israel, the norms that guide man’s relationship with our Creator, and this week’s parashah (Mishpatim) with its regulations of social justice among men. This also teaches us how our relationship with our fellow man is so important in the eyes of our Creator, because the Torah is eternal and is carried forth from generation to generation to teach us how to live.
Reading this portion of the Torah, one might think that it is just a set of outdated and archaic rules and regulations. However, we must not forget that the Torah is not just a book of history or laws; it is a book of instruction, so, although many of these regulations are no longer valid in our culture and without a Temple, they give us a better understanding of the nature of the One who gave us the principles of the Torah for us to apply to our daily lives.
We all agree on how important standards are for peaceful coexistence among peoples. However, we humans stumble regularly, continuously but the Torah teaches us ethics and responsibility. We need to put the written Word into practice, especially in these days marked with the tendency toward individuality and competition.
When we read, for example, about not oppressing the stranger, we must do this, not only because it is a regulation but to show love for our neighbor and feel empathy in his situation. This helps to acquire a discipline in life that governs our relationships within the community. In this sense, Parashat Mishpatim gives us standards of morals and good values that regulate our conduct within the community. For example, the Torah teaches us to protect the weak among us and how to apply it in our world today. There will always be widows, orphans, and foreigners among us, to whom we must show love and justice, without partiality.
In Mishpatim, the parashah on judgments, sentences and opinions, we are called to think before acting, to be aware that each one is responsible for his actions and that there are always consequences. We are often like the blind who walk around in the dark, meaning that we are unaware of our behaviour and responsibilities. Exodus 21:24 “… eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot …” is a warning us to remember that “with the same yardstick that we measure, we will be measured.”
We might ask ourselves, since the Torah is eternal and these ordinances were given by the Creator, what are their validity today? How do we apply the regulations regarding slaves or animals? The Creator gave us free will with which we may choose to comply or not. They meet the social needs for law and order and help man in his personal growth and development. They seek the protection of the individual from others and from himself. They establish a system of justice forging the moral and ethical base of humanity and this is what makes the Torah valid forever.
To sum up, the study of this parashah challenges us to direct ourselves in life with integrity, to respect others, not to be cruel or allow lies or bribery to lead us to commit injustices. The most important thing that we can retain from this study is that we can say as the people of Israel said, in verse 7 of chapter 24 “na’aseh venishma” נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע “We will do and listen” …to listen implies that we will obey. We will do what the Creator has commanded us and adopt it as a way of life and trust that our Supreme Creator knows what is best for each of us.
by Alejandro Alvarado