Finding God in the details of Mishpatim

Rabbi Mark Shook


“Oh rabbi, I may not follow everything in the Torah, but I do believe in the Ten Commandments. That should count for something.”

Indeed. I wish I had a dime for every time I heard that approach to the observance or rather non-observance of biblical laws. The underlying assumption is that the Ten Commandments are an ancient “top ten” of all the rules we should follow. If we manage to follow the top ten out of the six hundred and thirteen commandments, then that should be sufficient.

Last week’s parasha, Yitro, contained the Ten Commandments and much of the drama that precedes and follows the inscribing of the tablets of stone. This week’s parasha is not quite so vivid or awe inspiring. The portion known as Mishpatim, presents four chapters worth of rules and laws. Many of them are closely tied to a world we can only imagine, a world of indentured servants, lost property, and fallen farm animals. To better appreciate the meaning of these rules, perhaps we should consider a different way to understand the Ten Commandments.

Rather than representing the “Top 10,” the Ten Commandments represent the table of contents for the covenant document, the Torah. Although not precisely organized one through 10, the contents of the rest of the Torah will detail rules against idolatry, discuss at length Sabbath issues, and provide legal protection for the powerless, and so much more. Before there ever was the expression, “God is in the details,” our sages said that “God is anywhere we let God in.” Nowhere are both expressions truer than in a careful reading of these four chapters (Exodus 21-24). The divine presence is revealed in the section known as Mishpatim.

Mishpatim is all about protecting the powerless and making sure that the administration of justice is fair for rich and poor alike. “Do not take bribes for bribes blind the clear sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.” (Exodus 23:8) There are lessons to be learned beyond a strictly Biblical context. A legislator who accepts the exceedingly generous campaign contribution of a lobbyist in exchange for securing his vote on an issue, may not be guilty of a criminal offense, but is certainly a guilty of accepting a bribe that will impede his vision and subvert the cause of the just.

I am thinking of developing a new app for the connected world. When installed, it appears as a window on the left or right side of the device screen. Anytime a respected leader, by word or deed, violates one of these rules found in Mishpatim, the app screen flashes in bright colors and details the violation. The only problem with my app development plan is I have not discovered an app that recognizes violations when they occur. It would seem that for the time being, we are dependent on human judgment to make those calls. Perhaps we should take the time to familiarize ourselves with the fairness approach of Mishpatim. It couldn’t hurt.