For many weeks we have been riveted with the saga of the Israelites in Egypt, their lives as slaves, the torment of the Egyptians with the plagues, and the thrilling escape of the Israelites from their tyranny. We experienced the fright of being trapped between the water's edge at the Sea of Reeds and the approaching Egyptian army; witnessed the spectacular miracle of the sea splitting, felt the fear of traveling between the walls of water, and were relieved by eluding the grasp of Pharaoh. Finally, last week's parsha concluded with the revelation of the Divine and the gift of the Ten Commandments. While the spine-tingling sense is absent this week with Parshat Mishpatim, the significance is no less crucial.
The parsha opens with "And these are the laws that you (Moshe) shall place before them." The parsha is essentially a litany of laws that are presented to the people as they now set about to create a society outside Egypt. Rashi comments on this first verse that "And ", the first word of the verse teaches that these laws are a continuation of the Ten Commandments that were given at Sinai. Commentators point out that these laws are more detailed in contrast to the Ten Commandments themselves which have a much more broad sense to them. To a certain extent, the Ten Commandments articulate a vision, whereas the laws in this week's parsha present the details of that vision.
The first law discussed in the parsha is about an Eved Ivri, the indentured servant. A person who stole and could not pay back what he stole, or one who was so impoverished that he could not support himself, could become an indentured servant for a period of six years. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth points out that the Torah is taking a historical experience and transforming it into law. The Israelites just spent centuries as slaves (Avadim) in terrible conditions. The Torah is legislating how one must treat the Eved. As Rabbi Sacks writes "Slavery is transformed from a condition at birth to a temporary circumstance." The parsha mandates that slaves not be beaten and experience the Shabbat. The back-breaking servitude the Israelites experienced in Egypt is now legislated into a relatively short-lived humane occurrence.
The remainder of the parsha is the same. The laws are given to enable the Israelites to weave together a new society based on how they relate to one another. In Jewish parlance these laws are known as Mitzvot Bein Adam L'Chaveiro, Commandments between People. Laws about causing bodily injury, damage to private property, stealing, and the like are enumerated throughout the parsha.
There is a story of three men who were employed to cut blocks from stone. When they were each asked what they were doing, the first answered, "I am cutting stone." The second answered, "I am earning a living." The third responded, "I am building a palace."
While all three correct answers, only the third man's answer is significant. He has the vision. Judaism is indeed a palace and a beautiful one to be sure. Parshat Mitshpatim is more than a legislation of law. It is part of the Torah's blueprint for building that palace. This palace is built on ritual to be sure, for Shabbat, holidays, prayer, and and kashrut are essential, but equally crucial to this edifice are these laws that help us to know what to do when we make a mistake and how to relate to other people and make their lives better. The Talmud teaches that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam, senseless hatred between Jews.
Last week, right before the revelatory experience at Mount Sinai, the Israelites are referred to as a Holy Nation. With the giving of the Ten Commandments the Israelites were entrusted with a mission. The laws in Parshat Mishpatim are the details necessary in order to actualize that mission, they are the values with which use to create a more perfect world.
May we be worthy heirs and continue that sacred mission.