Mishpatim - Laws and Love

by Rabbi Alexis Roberts

"Mishpatim” means “judgements” or “rulings”. It is in this portion that we begin to get a sense of how much detail will be involved in determining how to live according to God’s will. Most modern Jews no longer live in autonomous communities where Jewish law pertains to all aspects of life. But even as Americans who treasure freedom of religion, we can turn to our sacred texts for guidance in how to evaluate our society and personal conduct, and determine where improvements are needed to come closer to the ideals of justice and holiness exemplified here. Current issues such as the treatment of captives and the unfair use of money for influence are addressed in this week’s portion.

In Parshat Mishpatim, God tells Moses to instruct the people in the law, and continues with many, many particular criminal, business, family, religious, ritual, lending and tax laws. There is specific attention to the rights of those who might be at a disadvantage, whether because they are enslaved, poor, foreign, or your enemy. The justification, repeated twice, is “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:20) Having experienced injustice, we are supposed to become very sensitive to the many ways justice must be constantly reinforced. The unfortunate are regarded as “yours” (Ex 23:6); not someone else’s responsibility.

The laws regarding setting up clean courts are especially stinging: (Ex 23:1-3) “…you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to the poor man in his dispute…” No advantage is to be given to rich or poor, but it is acknowledged that the poor need more protection: (Ex 23:6) “You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.” There are several threats in the portion that God will personally avenge such people if they are mistreated.

There are many rules regarding damages paid for injury and destruction of property, including the famous principal (Ex 21:24) “…eye for eye, tooth for tooth…”, which we learn is a reference to monetary compensation. There is a promise of triumph, health, and fertility if the people comply.

The entire people declares its assent to these laws with the famous affirmation “Naaseh v’nishmah!”, “we will do it, we will obey it!” (Ex 24:7) and a sacrifice is made to formalize the occasion. Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Abihu, and the Seventy Elders have a feast, and experience a vision of God above a sapphire pavement. Then Moses is called up to the mountain alone to receive further instructions.

The list of laws in Mishpatim is very wide ranging, touching on eternal principles and specifics of ancient life. Judaism has sometimes been dismissed for being so “legalistic” that the sense of God’s forgiving and loving nature is lost, and it becomes just a matter of following rules. But law is not contrary to compassion. Jews see the Torah and it’s laws as an expression of divine love. Being scrupulously fair, consistent, and clear about expectations are some of the ways a parent may express love for children. The even-handed enforcement of well-made laws is the best thing a people, or a nation, can do for itself. A just and peaceful society is the aim, where no one takes unfair advantage. This merges into ritual and religious life, because the purpose of all of it is not just to thrive materially, but to make it possible to be holy. The basis for all of these varied laws is a religious vision that, having been saved from humiliating oppression, we must cherish the holiness and dignity of every human being out of respect for our Creator and Redeemer. Perhaps this is why the portion ends with a vision of the divine; a society that kept all these principles would be a place where God would be vibrantly present and apparent to all.