Laws of justice and respect for humanity

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi Seth D Gordon

After 61 chapters, 14 parashiyot, of dramatic, thought-provoking narrative, Exodus 12 transitions into law. At that point, the Israelite calendar, a mark of distinctiveness, is instituted and permanently inserted into the nascent nation’s rhythm.  

Law merges with historical narrative as the great moment of liberation is to be commemorated in mitzvot, and eternally in a Pesach festival – during which we are commanded to abstain from chametz and obligated to eat matzah and maror.  As the Children of Israel enter the wilderness, are provided with manna and witness the awesome experience at Sinai, law is increasingly woven into the fabric of Israel.  It is in this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, that narrative recedes and law stands distinctively.  

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Mishpatim are those laws which promote justice and respect for humanity.  We might ourselves eventually develop mishpatim through reason, and other nations could also develop and embrace them.  As our new national character is being shaped in the wilderness, the mishpatim of ParashatMishpatim” are a divine gift that need not and must not wait for development; Parashat mishpatim addresses treatment of servants, killing, and personal responsibility for injuries or damage to property, etc.  (Later in the parashah other types of laws are promulgated.)

Parshat Mishpatim is not the first time the term “mishpatim” is employed.  The Torah informs us that God gave the Children of Israel “chok” and “mishpat” just before Sinai (Exodus 15:25b).  “Chukim” (plural), by contrast, are laws without an accompanying reason; if not for the divine command we would not likely enact them.  Chukim are particular to us and promote an obedient relationship with God.  Some are more drawn to the particularistic“just because I commanded you” chukim; others to the universal and rational mishpatim.  

Chukim and mishpatim were and are celebrated as God’s precious gift.  Our shacharit (morning) service includes Psalm 147 – “God spoke His word to Jacob; his chukim and mishpatim to Israel, something He did not do to every nation, and even His mishpatim they do not know intimately.”  Psalm 19, the first special psalm on Shabbat and Holyday mornings, lovingly and vividly proclaims:  “God’s Torah is perfect … God’s mishpatim are true and righteous; they are more beloved than gold, even abundant fine gold, and they are sweeter than honey and the drippings from the honeycomb.”  And the phrase “chukim and mishpatim” given by God in and with love is central in the prayer just before the Shema in our arvit (evening) services.  

Parshat Mishpatim shows that it is so. Whether compared to the morality of ancient Near Eastern cultures of the time, or to other civilizations that emerged later, or even to morality, justice, and humanity in our own day, the mishpatim and the development that flowed from an abiding love, study, and practice of mishpatim and chukim made us distinctive and a living source of morality that has changed the world.  

In this week’s parashah, although the Hebrew word for slave and servant is the same, “eved,” the differences are worlds apart.  The eved of the Torah served for a limited time, not perpetually; the eved in the Torah is protected from his master’s physical abuse, for the Torah granted the eved instant legal freedom if it occurred.  Consider the laws, conduct, and attitudes found in ancient Greece and Rome, even in the United States until recent generations, and still today in parts of the world, and contrast them with the Torah’s righteous view of humanity and justice.  

Injury to humans and destruction or theft of property are other major subjects in this week’s reading.  Justice is advanced through laws requiring fair compensation, neither ignoring the loss nor crushing the person responsible for it.  These mishpatim protect the weak and the innocent from exploitation, whether by prejudice or by callous disregard, and with no less care, defend them from enraged victims and/or overzealous authorities.   And, in addition to crystallizing legal consequences, the law had a profound educational effect on personal and national character by inculcating respect for persons and property.  

A society that embraces these laws by studying them and living them becomes a culture of justice, righteousness, and compassion. Such a culture, girded by mishpatim, penetrates into conscious living and into the collective unconscious of the society.  In turn, a wondrous righteous dynamic emerges.  The culture refines the people and the people improve the culture.  The absence of mishpatim, or neglect of their study, enables the worst of human nature to seep in, germinate, and infect the people and the culture in a deteriorating dynamic.  Through God’s gift of mishpatim we have been privileged to inherit and transmit a living model for our children and their children, a sacred heritage that has, and that can still, transform the world. 

Shabbat Shalom.