Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim| 5764
Down from Sinai and Back Up Again
Right after the incredibly spiritual experience of matan Torah, our parasha concentrates almost entirely on civil law. The Ramban says that the commandments after matan Torah are parallel to all of the Ten Commandments. The Torah’s civil law helps guide a person to know what is his and what is not, so that he won’t come to covet his friend’s things. But where are the proportions? How can there be one pasuk for idol worship and a whole parasha on not coveting? If you take a good look at some of the “religious mitzvot” that are mentioned in the parasha, you will see that even there the humanistic element of the mitzva is highlighted. (For example, the reason given for Shabbat is that one’s animals and servants shall rest (23:12)).
The explanation appears to be that Bnei Yisrael needed to put matters in perspective after the revelation on Har Sinai. After seeing what they saw, the spiritual realm was relatively clear to them. But to internalize that the great and powerful Hashem really cares if Reuven pays when his ox gores Shimon’s, that required some stress. “Yes, my dear Bnei Yisrael, there will be countless, small monetary concerns over history, which will collectively determine your spiritual level more than you can imagine and, in some cases, more than the directly spiritual.”
So, Judaism is basically just a humanistic religion? No, it is a religion which includes a great stress on proper civil behavior. In fact, the Torah, in one short, introductory pasuk, puts the outlook on civil law into perspective. “These are the laws that you will place before them.” Chazal explain (Gittin 88b) that “them” refers to the Jewish, rabbinical courts, where all disputes between two Jews must be adjudicated (if not solved by mediation). Why is this so important? After all, one of the seven Noachide commandments is that all nations should set up just, judicial systems. What if their laws are the same as ours? What if the parties are happy with the local gentile or secular courts? It’s their money, isn’t it?
In truth, an expert on Jewish law will have no problem explaining 98% of Choshen Mishpat to professors at a secular law school. But it is the two percent of Heavenly decrees and, more importantly, the atmosphere of holiness, in addition to justice, which should pervade a beit din, which brings home the point. Hashem did “send the Torah down” from Har Sinai to stress the importance of human, daily concerns. But to get the full picture, one needs to realize that when involved in mundane affairs, it is crucial to know that the solutions to questions and conflicts cannot suffice with an equitable, human solution. The living word of Hashem, as interpreted and applied by those familiar with the holy and the civil, guides our interpersonal relationships, as it guides our religious relationship with Hashem.
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