As a child at North West London Jewish Day School, I always remember the audible sigh when we would open up our Chumashim at Parshat Mishpatim. The dramatic storyline of plagues and splitting seas was now changing into discussions of various complex civil laws and practices- not much fun for an eight year old.
The question is – is it any different for us today? When we approach Mishpatim do we recognize the opportunity to delve into the nuts and bolts of Judaism – the Sinatic code that is thousands of years old? Much of the Gemara is based on these pesukim. Or do we dream to return to the exciting narratives that characterise the book of Bereishit and the first five sidrot in Shemot, that make seemingly far more interesting reading than a collection of civil legislation.
Mishpatim infact provides us with a beautiful montage of what living Judaism truly aspires to be. There is a common misconception that Judaism is confined to ritual. In fact, the Torah embraces all areas of life. After declaring ‘These are the ordinances that you shall place before them’, the Torah does not begin by listing the laws of Shabbat, the Festivals or dietary laws, but lists for us instead, a Jews civil responsibilities. We read of such areas as treatment of servants, damaged caused by livestock and integrity of the judicial process, which is a striking declaration of the all-encompassing breadth of Jewish law.
The Talmud emphasizes the importance of laws between man and man when it tells us that the first question asked by the heavenly court will be ‘Were you honest in business?’ (Shabbat 31a). In fact the prophet Isaiah emphasises that Israel’s security is linked to justice in monetary affairs ‘Zion will be redeemed through justice, and its captives through righteousness’ (Isaiah 1:27).
However, this does not negate the importance of ritual – the laws between man and God. Both components are necessary to be a complete Jew. The commonly heard dictum – ‘I don’t need the ritual observances to be a good Jew, I am a good person morally and ethically’ is as absurd as saying ‘I don’t need to be honest in business, I keep Shabbat and the Festivals’. Obviously Judaism comes as a package. Kedusha – holiness is obtained by a symbiotic relationship between those two areas. A Jew must strive to perfect himself in both the laws between man and man as well as those between man and G-d.
Mishpatim therefore contains in essence even more than the grandeur of Yitro and its ten commandments. The original reaction of the Jewish people after the majesty of Sinai was Naaseh – all that G-d says we will do (19:8). However, by Mishpatim that has changed to Naaseh v Nishmah – all that G-d says we will do and we will hear (24:7). The Jewish people have grown here beyond the level of simple performance – ‘we will do’, into a people that is now committed to the understanding of G-d’s ultimate vision for our people- ‘we will hear’.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw