D’var Torah: Mishpatim

Rachel LaVictoire,  is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Eliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a sophomore. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.

By Rachel LaVictoire

Remember when you were little and you wanted to do something really fun like dress your dog in human clothes, drive your plastic Barbie car in the “big kid” street, or see what would happen if you poured a glowstick’s insides on your mother’s garden (how cool would it be to have glow-in-the-dark flowers)? Remember why you didn’t? Because your mom said no. And when you asked why, she likely responded with those debilitating and heartbreaking four words that no kid ever wants to hear: Because I said so! 

It’s a universal understanding that no one likes to hear the word “no,” but as relatively rational beings, we’re much more inclined to respond well to a “no” if it’s followed by an explanation.  For example, if, let’s say, I wanted to go to a concert with my friends, and I asked my parents’ permission… If they gave me a “no, because I said so” type response, I would immediately be on the defensive: “what are you talking about? That’s not fair! I’m 19… bla bla bla.” If however, they told me I couldn’t go because, let’s say, we had to go somewhere to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I would be much more understanding—I may still try to negotiate, but I would be more understanding. 

It’s this sort of rationale that creates, within each of us, a sort of tension regarding biblical law: we don’t have the ability to ask “why,” to the Almighty G-d who wrote our laws. For some laws, this is not an issue. 

In fact, Jewish scholars generally divide mitzvot into two categories: logical Mishpatim, or “laws,” and questionably irrational Chukkim, or “decrees.” Mishpatim include laws that we, as a society, may have instituted on our own; they tend to make sense and seek good for all.  For example, we consider many of G-d’s 10 Commandments to be mishpatim: “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 19:13). Chukkim, on the other hand, may seem entirely arbitrary. They are solely from divine inspiration and may be entirely unrelated to morality or social conduct. These include laws similar to those of the ritual bath of the mikvah. 

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In this week’s Torah reading, appropriately named Mishpatim, the Israelites receive a total of 53 mitzvot. Interestingly enough, the mitzvot are divided almost evenly between imperative commands and prohibitions—23 and 30 respectively. A significant portion of the commandments focus on the fundamental commandment that, “if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot” (Exodus 21:23-24). In addition, in this week’s parshah, we receive other various mitzvot including:

“You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).

“So shall you do with your cattle and with your sheep: seven day sit shall be with its mother, on the eight day you may give it to Me” (Exodus 22:27). 

“You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of springtime, for then you left Egypt, and they shall not appear before Me empty handed” (Exodus 23:15).

“Three times during the year, all your males shall appear before the Master, the Lord” (Exodus 23: 17).

“The choicest of the first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the Lord, your G-d. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19).

You may have noticed some differences among these commandments—some are logical, some speak to our moral code, some are outright explained, and some beg the question of why. But how do you think the people of Israel responded to these commandments, as well as the other 48? The Torah reads:

So Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances, and all the people answered in unison and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3).

Without question, each Israelite immediately agreed to uphold each of the 53 commandments, both the imperatives and the prohibitions. Their devotion is stunning—so simple it was for them. Today the idea of absolute faithfulness is almost foreign. We question everything. Whether that’s right or wrong, I do not know. I certainly don’t have the answer, nor will I pretend to hold such an unwavering certainty. 

I did, however, recently come across an interesting perspective on the matter, and I’ll relate it here to the way in which many of us go about charity giving. In most cases, we don’t give specifically to a precise need. If you make a contribution to the American Cancer Society, for example, you likely will not tell them exactly which research professional in which lab you’d like your money to go to. That’s because you trust their overall integrity and success. You know some specifics examples of their results and their plan, and you trust them to make choices as they please. 

So, too, is the case with our parents and with our relationship to G-d. In the case of our parents, we slowly learn not to ask why. At 19 years old, I know that if my parents give me a cold, “no,” that they have good intentions—I can trust that without asking. 

Finally, this idea as it relates to G-d and his commandments: we believe that G-d created humankind. Therefore, G-d decided what about this world and about His law we would find comprehensible, and what we would not. He knows that we cannot understand, even if we were to ask why. We are asked, then, to follow his commandments out of love and trust, not out of understanding.