Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18)
After being exposed to the ideals embodied by the Ten Commandments, which would later serve as the fundamental values shared by people around the world, the Torah takes us back down to reality in our portion, Mishpatim, and begins to list the ways we can apply those values in our daily lives.
Before reaching those details, however, the Torah states at the very end of the previous portion, Yitro: “And you shall not ascend with steps upon My altar, so that your nakedness shall not be exposed upon it.” [Ex. 20:22] That is to say that if a person wishes to build an altar for offering sacrifices, he is kindly requested not to fashion a staircase leading up to the altar, and instead to opt for a ramp, so that his nakedness will not be exposed when ascending to the altar.
Immediately afterwards, we read the opening verse of Parshat Mishpatim: “And these are the laws that you shall set before them”. [21:1] An obvious question arises: what is the connection between these two verses?
On the face of it, there isn’t. One verse discusses the laws of sacrifices and staircases on the altar, while the other introduces a judicial and enforcement system. We could say that the connection between the two verses is purely technical, and tie in the fact that the seat of the Sanhedrin – the judiciary of Ancient Israel – was located in Jerusalem, adjacent to the site of the altar.
However, our Sages discovered a much more profound connection between the verses. In the Talmudic period, the congregation would sit on the floor, and anyone walking among them would seem to be stepping on their heads. Thus, Rabbi Elazar taught, “How does the judge [know] not to step on the heads of the Holy Nation?. If so, why shouldn’t he do so? Hence, [the text] says: ‘You shall not ascend on stairs’, and juxtaposes it to ‘These are the laws you shall set…’”
Our Sages connect the idea of climbing up stairs in order to reach the altar with the judicial system. How is all of this is related to the issue of indecent exposure? The Sages understood the clear connection between a person’s sense of dominance over others, and how that person may attempt to exploit that power to take advantage of those under his power and control.
A judge who tramples up the stairs on the way to the altar, thinking that he is the king of the world, and that everyone else is subject to his rule and discipline, will end up committing indecent exposure. It will happen to him, in the simplest sense, because he sees others as people who deserve to be exploited – and sexually exploited as well.
His exposure, as described in the verse, can also be interpreted metaphorically as a person’s haughtiness, which serves to reveal the person’s dishonor. It is striking that our rabbis asked another question: why does the text state, “…and these are the laws that you shall set before them…”, instead of “… the laws that you shall teach them”?
After all, laws need to be taught and learned, not set. Their response was that the expression of setting laws is also related to the enforcement and penal systems. They were designed to give judges rods and whips, and not just law books. In other words, merely conducting classes and giving lectures in court isn’t enough. A judicial system is more than just a theoretical and educational beit midrash, and it needs its own punitive tools. Those include a police force, a stick or rod, a prison, and so on. These are necessary, and they are what makes the system so intimidating.
When a person who is in control that he has absolute power, no one can tell him to do, especially when things are done inconspicuously, when the rest of the population is not following what is happening. Before the person realizes what has occurred, this sense of dominance can deprive him of his common sense and his values.
Hence, the Torah specifically chooses the verses featuring the translation of the life values embodied within the Ten Commandments to convey the following message: modesty comes first. Don’t presume to reign over those subordinated to you, whoever they may be. The Sages continue this train of thought, stating that the commandment to use a ramp to reach the altar instead of stairs hints to the requirement to mete out judgement moderately.
We must inch along the ramp, taking care not to raise our legs as if climbing stairs. It is precisely because society needs a system of courts and a fair and reliable police force that it is so important that this system remains moderate and makes its decisions with great caution. It must never abuse the power conferred upon it to harm those who are most vulnerable, socially or economically, or lessen the accountability of others in positions of power, out of fear that their own standing will suffer.
It makes no difference if these are senior officers, or other judges. A person must be moderate and humble. When these fundamental rules are obeyed by those responsible for enforcing the law and judging others, they will not be guilty of indecent exposure, and we will no longer witness the types of scandals that occur far too often in our societies.
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