Rabbi David Walk
For those of you who are used to reading these articles, you may have noticed that I often reference or allude to movies. I really like movies, especially old ones. Until this point in the book of Exodus, we've been following a story line which reads like movie scripts. As a matter of fact it did serve as the basic script outline for a number of flicks. However, this week's parsha reads like a legal text book, and that's not nearly as exciting. Let's be honest this stuff is pretty much boring to everyone except those who like torts and damages cases. Nevertheless, there seems to be a very intense rabbinic effort to present this material as exhilarating and stimulating. It's not all that successful, but let's try to see what their point is.
The starting point for this enterprise is one letter. The letter vav which begins this week's Torah reading means 'and'. It's job as a conjunction is to connect different material. In this case, it connects the previous section of the Torah to this scintillating legal tract. There are a number of opinions about what we're specifically connecting here. One idea is that the legal material which begins this week's Torah reading is connected to the verses which immediately precede it. The last section of last week's parsha discusses instructions for constructing the large, outdoor altar in the portable temple and then the Holy Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. And what's the point of connection between these two sections? Easy! The supreme court for adjudicating the mundane laws presented in our reading of Mishpatim must sit within the Temple precinct, and, indeed, the Sanhedrin sat on the Temple Mount until chased away by the Romans in the first century of the Common Era.
However, the power of that one letter conjunction may be much stronger. This week's entire reading is a continuation of the Sinaitic covenant. According to many Bible scholars, both traditional and secular, chapters 18 through 24 of Exodus (half of Yitro and all of Mishpatim) are considered to be one unit, often called the book of the covenant. This is very important. Sometimes, we observant Jews foolishly take the laws called Mishpatim for granted. Normally, those of us accustomed to Biblical terminology describe Mishpatim as laws that we humans would have enacted if God had not. This can lead us to a grievous error. We don't attach the same holiness or devotion to these regulations. We view these rules of honesty and integrity as somehow less Godly than other Biblical laws, like Shabbat or kashruth. But God never viewed the situation that way at all.
There are many places in our Tanach in which our prophets, especially Isaiah, Hosea and Micah, clearly state that God is displeased with the Jewish nation because of our lack of loyalty to social justice. Besides idolatry, few prophetic tirades center on ritual laws or laws between human and Deity. Perhaps the strongest statement of the preferential placement of civil laws in the Biblical canon was made by Nehemiah. He publicly proclaimed: God, you came down onto Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them right rules and true teachings, good laws and commandments (Nehemiah 9:13). There is a Midrash on our parsha (Mechilta) in which Rebbe Shimon asks why Nehemiah gave priority to Mishpatim. He answered that these civil laws bring peace between human beings, and that is the greatest goal of Torah.
This brings us to what might be considered the crucial question: Why is it necessary that these civil laws be Divine? Since every society writes versions of these laws, why couldn't God just leave this part of our legal code to the individual countries and leave it at that? Wouldn't individual societies figure out the best laws to suit their specific needs? There are a number of possible answers to this question. Perhaps the most popular is that these laws from God include not only safeguards for personal safety and property protection, but also numerous laws to protect those elements of society who can't take care of themselves. Foremost among them are the widow, orphan and stranger. That idea is very special, and a case can be made for that being the core purpose for Torah and mitzvoth in the first place. We were strangers and slaves in Egypt so that later we'd be compassionate for others in similar plights.
There are also Rabbis (including Rashi), who suggest that we have a unique Torah legal system and our courts because we want judges who are pious and loyal to Torah values. So, that even if the secular courts would render the same decision we are committed to using Jewish Batei Din or arbitration tribunals exclusively.
But I'd like to present another approach to this question. This concept is connected to an idea we've already mentioned. We have a Jewish system of jurisprudence not because it's intrinsically superior to other systems (Even though we believe that it is.), but because we need to sit those courts near the Temple. The overall plan of connecting the civil laws with the ritual regulations is to form a cohesive view point of life. Legal process and religious piety can not be separated from each other. God wants us to keep kosher, but our Creator equally is interested in our honest business dealings. In the Midrash on our parsha (Exodus Raba section 19), Rabbi Eliezar said that The entire Torah depends on justice.
Too many ritually observant Jews believe that following the mitzvoth between God and mankind are sufficient to be a good Jew. Business dealings and personal honesty are besides the point for a religious personality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our God is more concerned for how we treat each other that for how we treat the Cosmic Director, who can take care of Himself. It's time for our understanding of religion to reach a more mature plateau. Observant Jews and our Torah institutions must stand for personal integrity before we concern ourselves with strict interpretations of kashruth or shabbat. We must place our honesty right next to the Holy of Holies.
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