After the sensory overload of Sinai, parshat Mishpatim provides a moment to catch our breath, an opportunity to reestablish some boundaries and achievable expectations as mortal human beings, to regain solid ground in the world of the everyday. Having just experienced the overwhelming thunder, lightning and smoke of the Divine Presence, it’s oddly comforting to read: “Ela ha-mishpatim”/“These are the rules” — even if we take issue with some of them.
So what are these mishpatim? The “aseret ha-dibrot”/“Ten Pronouncements” received at Sinai came down as non-negotiable moral directives: “Do not murder!” But many of the mishpatim are “if-then” statements, implying a role for human judgment. They are about ethical behavior, how to act in specific circumstances: “If someone lets his animals loose to graze on another person’s land and allows them to graze the field or vineyard bare, then he must compensate that other person for the damage his livestock caused” (Ex. 22:4). Although the Torah contexts may seem foreign to us now, it’s possible to apply many of these thought processes to daily situations we might encounter: “If someone parks his car on a hill without setting its emergency brake and his car rolls down and smashes his neighbor’s fence, then he must compensate that person for the damage the car caused.”
However, “if-then” mishpatim are not just about repairing physical damage. They’re also about repairing relationships between people! Both sides take emotional risks. The person who caused the damage must overcome the reluctance to admit they were wrong, find the courage to approach the neighbor about it, apologize, ask how to make amends, commit to taking those actions, and finally have the integrity to complete the agreed-upon actions in a timely way. The person who was wronged must overcome their anger at the damage done, find the compassion to forgive the one whose negligence caused it, then willingly work with that person to agree on a satisfactory restitution, and finally offer gratitude when the restitution is made. In order to restore shalom/“peaceful balance” to their relationship, both parties must negotiate in good faith.
Some mishpatim not in the “if-then” form still serve the ethical purpose of fostering healthy relationships between people by giving not only a rule, but also a reason for it: “Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and pervert the pleas of those who are in the right” (Ex. 23:8); “Do not oppress the foreigner, for you know the feelings of the foreigner” (Ex. 23:9).
Both the mishpatim and aseret ha-dibrot are also about the relationship between Israel and God, but in different ways; and language offers a clue. During the revelation at Sinai, Israel is identified as a group: God’s “am segulah”/“treasured people” and a “goi kadosh”/“holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). But in parshat Mishpatim, the verse “You shall be holy people to Me” (Ex. 22:30) uses the term “anshei kodesh,” literally “persons of holiness,” to describe Israel’s relationship to God. This subtle distinction teaches that Israel’s collective status as God’s “holy people” is continually informed by how each Jewish person individually acts toward other Jews and toward non-Jews. In essence then, parshat Mishpatim challenges us to understand and accept our role as active daily partners with each other and God in creating and maintaining a holy and ethically viable society. PJC
Rabbi Doris J. Dyen is the spiritual leader for the independent Makom HaLev community. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.