Posted by: Subway Conductor | February 12, 2021

A Derasha for Parshat Mishpatim

 The name of this week’s Torah portion is mishpatim which means laws. Perhaps the most important word in the beginning of this portion is the word “and.” Our portion begins, “and these are the laws that you shall set before them.” What is the significance of the word “and?”

“And” is a conjunction which connects two things. Since “and” is the first word of the portion it seems obvious that it connects this week’s portion to last week’s What transpired in last week’s portion? It contained the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Decalogue (the so-called Ten Commandments.) By joining this week’s portion to last week’s, the word “and” is telling us that mishpatim is a continuation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Rashi comments on the word “and” that “just as those words (in last week’s portion) were given at Sinai, so were these words in this week’s portion given at Sinai.”

The Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) presents the highlights, the headlines. The Ten Commandments are fundamental principles that no human society can live without. “Do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not murder” are basic ethical concepts that all societies must have in order to function properly. I believe “honor your father and mother” is also a fundamental of human society. Parents are the primary transmitters of the basic rules of life. They teach us at the earliest stage of life the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper behavior. Therefore, respect for parents is essential for the proper transmission of these core ideas to the next generation of citizens. The Ten Commandments also contain the essential idea of monotheism, “you shall have no other gods before Me.”  Additionally, the commandment to observe the Sabbath is fundamental to Judaism. All these commandments are very important, even essential.

 However, they are not sufficient. I have sometimes heard people say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone kept the Ten commandments? The world would be so much better off if everyone would just keep the Ten Commandments.” Far be it from me to deny that the world would be a better place if there were no stealing or murder. But the truth is that these basic principles are meant as “headlines.” A society requires a much more extensive set of laws in order to function. The Torah was intended to be a comprehensive, all-encompassing guide to human life.  And that brings us to this week’s Torah portion. The revelation continues “and these are the laws” which will provide the details for how to govern a community.

 What are these laws? I suppose if I asked someone randomly, “what are some Jewish laws?” I would get answers that would suggest that Judaism has dietary laws, or laws about the Sabbath, or other Jewish holidays. Indeed, mishpatim does include a couple of dietary laws. The prohibition of eating teref (meat from an animal that has already been killed) is found here. Also, the first of the three times that the command is given not to “cook a kid in its mother’s milk” is in this portion. The three festivals are mentioned here and there is a brief reference to the Sabbath. However, the great bulk of the commandments given in this portion (and there are a lot of them) are laws that fall into the categories of civil and criminal law. Laws relating to property damage, negligence, personal injury, kidnapping, stealing, and murder are all found in this portion. This portion provides the foundation for many of the longest tractates in the Talmud. Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, Bava Batra, and Sanhedrin are voluminous sections of the Talmud dealing with civil and criminal law. The fact is that Jewish law is a comprehensive system of laws that provides the legal system for a Jewish community in all its myriad activities. To this day, Jewish courts continue to function as the institution through which observant Jews are supposed to seek the resolution of disputes with other observant Jews. There are rabbis who specialize in Jewish business law. Here in Chicago, there is a center for this study called the Choshen Mishpat Kollel. Choshen Mishpat is the section of the Shulchan Aruch (the most accepted code of Jewish law) that deals with civil law. This center receives many questions from Jewish business people asking for halachic opinions on a wide variety of situations which come up in the course of business dealings.

           The Ten Commandments provide the fundamental principles and a few of the key concepts essential for human society. But a society requires a far more complex system of laws. The foundation for these laws is provided in this week’s Torah portion. These Torah laws are elaborated and expanded into an even more complex system of laws in the Talmud. Centuries of scholars and legal experts commenting on the Talmud provide further layers of the Jewish legl system which was codified in works such as the Shulchan Aruch. Even going beyond these legal codes are thousands upon thousands of legal opinions that have been written by prominent rabbis throughout the centuries in a literature referred to as “she’elot u teshuvot” or responsa. This vast literature continues to be added to in the present day as new problems arise. In today’s world, technological development has been a major source of new questions and issues that require Jewish legal answers. A couple of years ago I attended a meeting with a rabbi who is the head of a yeshiva in Israel that specializes exclusively in the area of halachic questions that are raised by new technology. For instance, the interplay between Shabbos observance and new types of appliances in our homes is an area that they investigate. Devices such as faucets and lights that are now often turned on automatically or by a motion detector pose questions about their use on the Sabbath.

           Jewish law is an ever-expanding application of the mitzvot given in    the Torah to the infinite variety of human experiences.


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