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Basic Laws for Life

Torah Talk on Mishpatim 5780

This week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim includes as many laws as any part of the entire Torah. After the last few weeks of spectacularly dramatic Torah portions featuring some of the greatest highlights in the entirety of Jewish tradition—indeed, all religious history—Mishpatim could come as a major let down.

Last week, amid the smoke and thunder of Mt. Sinai, we received the Ten Commandments; the week before God parted the Sea for us and we miraculously crossed on dry land; and in the weeks before that 10 plagues struck the Egyptians, and Pharaoh and Moses had their duel of wills in the desert. But Mishpatim is nothing more than a collection of laws about how to interact with other human beings—civil legislation. How exciting: how to handle someone else’s property fairly. How to assess punitive damages for a man who injures another person or destroys someone else’s property. How to act when someone puts his or her property in trust with you. The laws of manslaughter and theft and damages.

Boring laws, many of them tediously detailed. And no one really likes reading law books. If the Torah is truly our fundamental moral text, this is an array of detailed legislation about human interaction that seems so trivial as not to belong in the Torah at all. So why is Mishpatim here?

Human beings have no love of law, or usually of lawyers. But without laws, and without enforcement of them, we fallible creatures wouldn’t function well at all. In fact, the Mishnah tells us, we would tear each other apart. Where anarchy reigns, justice doesn’t.

And that’s where the Mishpatim come in. For we need law, and we need limits, although we might not like either one much. Judaism understands that if we are to be truly good, or truly free, then we must observe the laws and rules of human decency, embodied in the code of legislation that makes up Mishpatim. Before we can love another human being as we love ourselves, we must respect that human being’s property and person. Before we can make this world holy we must treat each other with civility. It is a great, fundamental lesson we seem to need to re-learn in every generation, perhaps especially in ours.

A final note: at the end of this week’s parshah, after all the rules and laws, the torts and talionis’s, God reveals a glimpse of the Divine essence to Moses. Why here? Because Mishpatim teaches that we can only experience real holiness when we begin by respecting our fellow men and women, when we come to understand that we are all in this together, and that the way to God is actually through the ways we learn to work together and trust one another.

And we must do this in simple, practical, daily ways, by following decent rules for human interaction.

Freedom, and holiness, are dependent on the little laws established in Mishpatim, on the civility that rules require. May we all remember that this week, and every week.

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