Mishpatim 5784: Matan Torah, A Complete Package

In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, the narrative of Matan Torah continues.  Whereas Parshas Yisro delineates the astonishing, awe-inspiring and impactful method by which the Torah was given – thunder, lightning, the continuous blast of the shofar growing ever stronger, the mountain itself was shaking, the people in the camp were shaking, the mountain was smoking, the thick Cloud of G-d’s Presence was visible (keviyachol) atop the mountain, the voice of G-d going forth to announce the dibros to the nation, the entire nation healed of vision and hearing ailments (Shemos 19), the mount of Sinai burning with fire till the heart of heaven (Devarim 4:11) – the parsha of Mishpatim (Shemos 21, 22, 23) seems to be the exact opposite of the Matan Torah experience.

Parshas Mishpatim details mitzvah after mitzvah, and law after law, most of which govern social order and society founded upon, and based on, Torah ideals.  The parsha opens with the following words: וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם, and these are the laws that you shall place before them.  Rashi comments: That you shall place before them: כְּשֻׁלְחָן הֶעָרוּךְ וּמוּכָן לֶאֱכֹל לִפְנֵי הָאָדָםlike a table fully laid out and prepared before a person with everything ready for eating (Shemos 21:1 w/ Rashi).

Not only must Moshe teach the nation these laws, they must be arranged clearly before them, in a way that the people understand, and can integrate and apply them to every day life – just like a set table with everything ready for eating.

R’ Samson Rafael Hirsch teaches, “Our whole relationship to G-d is to be understood as one that provides a firm and unshakeable basis for upbuilding society in the spirit of justice and humanity and for strengthening each and every individual in the spirit of pure morality.   To this principle, the vav ha’chibur (connecting vav with which the parsha begins – וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִיםand these are the laws that you shall set before them) connects the מִּשְׁפָּטִים, the laws that are to establish the upbuilding of Jewish society on the basis of justice and humanity.  Thereby the cherev (topic of the preceding chapter and verses), the sword – i.e.: violence and harshness – will be banished from the society of the Jewish state, and only then will this society be worthy of erecting an altar to G-d in its midst.  Hence the מִּשְׁפָּטִים precede the building of the Mishkan (which begins in next week’s parsha).

“However, the pasuk says: אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם, and these are the laws that you shall place before them (21:1).  The expression תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם – which here refers to the transmission of G-d’s laws to Israel through Moshe – is used elsewhere in only one specific sense, namely: serving prepared food to a guest… When applied to the transmission of laws, this expression denotes a transmission so clear and comprehensive that the laws are set before us in full clarity and can be understood and carried out completely.  Accordingly, Rashi’s explanation, ‘like a table set before a person, with everything ready for a meal,’ reflects the literal, actual sense of the expression and command” (RSRH, commentary to Shemos 21:1).

Our code of law – Torah from the word הוראה, instruction, and morah, teacher – is the blueprint and guide, the moral compass and voice of G-d – that teaches us to how build a society that is elevated, holy, fair and just.  This society will have no place for violence and harshness and will champion justice for all.  It is this Torah based and Torah built society that G-d’s presence can, and will, dwell.  Hence, וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם, and they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell amongst them (Shemos 25:8), can only follow the parshios of Matan Torah – Yisro and Mishpatim combined – which instruct us how to create a society where G-d desires to dwell (keviyachol).

Mishpatim opens with the laws surrounding an eved Ivri – a Hebrew indentured servant.  One who stole and cannot afford to pay back may be sold by the beis din (Jewish courts) as a slave, or one who is so poor that he cannot provide for himself, may sell himself into slavery.  How well must the eved Ivri be treated?  Chazal teach (Kedushin 20a):

דְּתַנְיָא: ״כִּי טוֹב לוֹ עִמָּךְ״עִמְּךָבַּמַּאֲכָלוְעִמְּךָבַּמִּשְׁתֶּה

It was taught in a Baraisa: ‘Because it is good for him with you ‘(Deuteronomy 15:16); with you in food and with you in drink (the eved Ivri shall be treated as equal to his master in regard to food and drink);

שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא אַתָּה אוֹכֵל פַּת נְקִיָּה וְהוּא אוֹכֵל פַּת קִיבָּר, אַתָּה שׁוֹתֶה יַיִן יָשָׁן וְהוּא שׁוֹתֶה יַיִן חָדָשׁ, אַתָּה יָשֵׁן עַל גַּבֵּי מוֹכִים וְהוּא יָשֵׁן עַל גַּבֵּי הַתֶּבֶן. מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ: כׇּל הַקּוֹנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי כְּקוֹנֶה אָדוֹן לְעַצְמוֹ

This means that there shall not be a situation in which you eat fine bread and he eats inferior bread. There shall not be a situation in which you drink aged wine and he drinks (inferior) new wine. There shall not be a situation in which you sleep comfortably on bedding made from soft sheets and he sleeps on straw. From here the Sages stated: Anyone who acquires a Hebrew slave is considered like one who acquires a master for himself! [because he must be careful that the slave’s living conditions and upkeep are equal to his own.]

דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵינֹעַם וְכָלנְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹםher ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are paths of peace (Mishlei 3:17); our Torah is compassionate and kind.  Even in the treatment of the downtrodden, someone so poor he cannot support himself, nay, especially in the treatment of the downtrodden, the halachos are designed so that the weakest segment of society will not be taken advantage of.  Hence, in Mishpatim we are commanded not to oppress the convert, the widow or the orphan.  We are commanded not to curse or hit our parents.  We are commanded not to keep the collateral items of clothing of another with us overnight.  We are forbidden from charging interest on a loan.  We must ensure our workers and animals rest on the Sabbath day, as we do.

It is only after the societal laws are laid out before us, that the nation can truly and wholeheartedly declare: כֹּל אֲשֶׁרדִּבֶּר הנַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָעall that G-d has spoken, we will do and we will listen (Shemos 24:7).

To be a Jew is to be wholesome with G-d and honest, compassionate, kind and loving in our treatment of fellow man.

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום לעמנו ולארצנו,


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