January 24th, 2014

The proximity of the Torah portion of Mishpatim to the previous Torah portion of Yitro is fascinating, and curious.

In Yitro we read how the Jews reached their spiritual zenith at the foot of Mount Sinai, as they received the Torah and encountered God, in a way that transformed them into His chosen people. It was the high point of Jewish history.

That being the case, Mishpatim is a crashing anti-climax. Mishpatim deals with the most mundane matters of civil and criminal law: theft; property law; personal injury; compensation. What an astonishing comedown from the lofty heights of the Ten Commandments.

This point was not lost on the medieval Bible commentators, the most famous of whom, Rashi, commenting on the Hebrew letter ‘vav’ that connects the two portions, pointed out that “just as the former are from Sinai, so too are these from Sinai.”

In other words, all laws are Divine in origin, so don’t dismiss civil and criminal law as matters unrelated to Judaism and God, just because they are mundane and ordinary.

On the face of it, this explanation seems rather lame. Legal systems dealing with civil and criminal law evolve over time, and are not subject to ritual concerns. If you steal something, or hurt someone, you must surely be punished or dealt with accordingly. Why does that have anything to do with God? How can civil laws be compared to observing Shabbat, or wearing tefillin, or keeping kosher? Rather, it seems as if Rashi is trying to create Godliness and holiness where they don’t exist.

It goes without saying that there has to be a Jewish system of civil and criminal law, so that the ordinary matters of life pertaining to Jews can be addressed judiciously, but that does not make the system religious. It may be the system for Jews, but civil and criminal laws are part of a logical scheme that reflect every human’s understanding that the basis of society is rules, without which society cannot function and anarchy will reign. Worshipping God, on the other hand, is outside of the intellectual realm, and in that sense parallel and unrelated.

The truth, however, is quite the reverse. There is no such thing as maintaining a close relationship with God if there is no respect for fellow man. No Jew can consider himself close to God if he is dishonest in business, or disrespectful to his parents. This exact idea is reflected in the very commandments that were given on Mount Sinai, and recorded on the Tablets. Half of the Ten Commadments were ritual laws, while the other half were civil and criminal.

In fact, there is a deeper message here. God wants us to internalize the limitations of our intellect. Just as the observance of ritual law is unintellectual, and simply a way of connecting to the Divine without it having to make sense, all of the civil and criminal laws recorded in the Torah are also a part of our ritual laws.

In other words, even if the world around us comes to the conclusion that it is entirely acceptable to steal, or to be disrespectful, or worse – and we find ourselves influenced by the logic underpinning these views – we must still look to our Torah for guidance, and follow the Torah law.

If the Torah, the eternal guide of the Jewish people, tells us that something is wrong, then that something must remain outside the realm of intellectual debate and societal evolution.

As shocking as this may sound, in the final analysis there is no difference between Shabbat and murder, nor between kosher and the respect for other people’s property.

That is Judaism, and that is how we get close and stay close to God.

Photo: Mass-revelation at Mount Sinai in an illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company, 1907 (Public Domain)

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