Parashat Mishpatim Torah Reading: Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah takes us from the sublime moment of the revelation at Sinai in last week's reading to a catalogue of mitzvot/commandments relating to a wide range of prosaic subjects in this week's parashah/ Torah reading.
Among the subjects covered in Parashat Mishpatim:
Different categories of assault
Laws concerning theft
Who is responsible for the damage done by fire
The treatment of orphans and widows
Prohibition from accepted bribes
and many more . . .
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in a compilation of his teachings called Pebbles of Wisdom, asks: "Does God have to descend from Heaven just to instruct the members of a fugitive tribe about things they could learn by themselves if they took the trouble?"
Indeed, cultures before, after, and contemporary with Israelite religion have developed legal codes which relate to all of the subjects addressed in Mishpatim. There is a lot of common sense woven into these mitzvot. There are a lot of insightful values woven into these mitzvot as well . . . approaches to these challenges of human existence that bring human dignity and a sense of the holy to every day life.
In this case, the medium is very much the message.
The presence of this catalogue of civil and criminal law in the Torah is very much the message.
Rabbi Steinsaltz continues:
"The point is that what God says is unique and special, not in terms of content but because it is God who says it. Included are the ethical formulas, "thou shall not do" and "thou shall do" this or that, which are all part of the human structure. But when the same injunction is part of a Divine communication, it acquires another dimension of power and meaning. As, for example, in music, the intervals and emphasis are just as important as the notes themselves."
Parashat Mishpatim comes to encourage us to let Judaism out of the box. Judaism was never meant to be confined to ritual and dietary laws and prayers . . . although all those are important. Parashat Mishpatim encourages us to welcome Judaism into our everyday lives.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.