Parshat Mishpatim and Aseret HaDibrot

Rabbanit Bili Rebenstein is the Rosh Beit Midrash for Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Israeli programs

Rabbanit Bili RabensteinThe giving of the Torah on Sinai, of which we read in last week’s portion of Yitro, is a formative moment in the history of our people.  It is the moment when the Divine turns to simple man and “engages in direct conversation”.  This unimaginable encounter is translated by the Torah into ten commandments.
The Torah wishes to teach that even a formative experience does not suffice in the case of a one-time event, or an extraordinary moment.  The experience must be translated into actions and put into practice – these are the Ten Commandments.
In keeping with the above notion, the portion of Mishpatim translates the Divine call to humans into dos and don’ts.  Our portion boasts a long list of mitzvot, most of which pertain to interpersonal relationships i.e., laws between people [ben adam lachavero], which aim to formalize social behaviors and norms in various areas of life.  This broad spectrum of mitzvot incorporates a great many life situations, and in this ocean of mitzvot relating to daily life, the grandeur of Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai – seems to fade somewhat.
In the following paragraphs I would like to illustrate how the splendor and majesty of Matan Torah at Sinai is nonetheless able to penetrate the seemingly dry description of Parshat Mishpatim, and how the sublime spirit of the Ten Commandments hovers above the lengthy sequence of commandments in this portion.

“I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

The first commandment is the basis for everything that was before and all that is still to happen.
By opening Parshat Mishpatim with the laws pertaining to a Jewish slave and maidservant, the Torah wishes to teach us that the notion of “I am the Lord thy God” must be applied to all layers of society, the lowest ranks included.  The reason being that a person’s true awareness of the commandment “I am the Lord thy God” can only be judged by the way he treats his own slave or maidservant.  The exodus from Egypt marked the end of the slavery period for the Israelites, and the Ten Commandments place this recognition at the very basis of the encounter between Man and God.  Parshat Mishpatim takes this further and demands of us to apply this awareness practically and to live by it, thus putting into action the principle stating that an Israelite is only a slave to God – and no one else.

“Thou shall not steal.”

The eighth commandment contains a mere two words in Hebrew – lo tignov.  Two words demanding of one not to purloin the possessions or the money of another.  The portion of Mishpatim deals extensively with monetary relationships and commitments.  In fact, numerous mitzvot in this portion are an elaboration on the words lo tignov.  These mitzvot are a midrash halakha of sorts, through which the Torah expands on its own two “core words”.
Under this heading of “Lo Tignov”, the parsha includes all possible types of monetary misconduct, plus some.  The Torah demands of us to take responsibility for any financial implication that our deeds may generate.  From the laws of thievery, the Torah moves on to damages pertaining to livestock and those caused by fire, which are followed by the laws of shomrim (different type of watchmen).  By mentioning the above in close proximity, the Torah likens certain acts of negligence to offenses committed with intent, thus setting very high standards in terms of one’s accountability for one’s actions.

“Thou shall not murder.”

This commandment is expanded upon in Parshat Mishpatim by means of a variety of cases which all have one thing in common:  human life cannot be translated into a monetary value.  The assertion “nefesh tachat nefesh” [“life for life”] might evoke aversion, but when the alternative is paying a sum of money to atone for a murder committed, the terrible truth stares us in the face: money cannot be substituted for human life; it is priceless.
I suggest we read the entire sequence of similar laws – “ayin tachat ayin” [“an eye for an eye”], “shen tachat shen” [“a tooth for a tooth”][1], with the above notion in mind. In this instance, as well, the modern ear may find such descriptions unacceptable, as did our Sages, who were unwilling to understand these verses literally, and thus explained:  “Ayin tachat ayin – this refers to money.”[2]  Once we understand that these laws are extensions of the absolute principle of “Thou shall not murder”, the assertion that human life and the human body holding that life are sacred follows quite naturally.

“Thou shall not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”; “Thou shall not give false testimony against thy neighbor.”

The second and ninth commandments seemingly refer to very different matters, but in our portion of Mishpatim, they are intertwined, in that both are framed by the Divine order to do justice:  “Thou shall not accept [“lo tisa“] a false report; place not your hand with a wicked person to be a false witness.  Thou shall not follow the majority for evil, and thou shall not respond [“lo ta’ane“] concerning a lawsuit to follow many to pervert justice.”[3]
The commandment not to take God’s name in vain relates to making use of God’s name in such manner that will desecrate its sanctity.  In the verses mentioned in Parshat Mishpatim, this commandment is transitioned from the domain of mitzvot ben adam LaMakom [commandments between Man and God] to the domain of commandments pertaining to ben adam lachavero [commandments relating to interpersonal issues].  In our portion, the forbidden usage of God’s name refers to a situation in which one man wishes to harm another through the judicial system.  The commandment instructing an individual not to give false testimony against his neighbor – an act which directly harms another person by means of the judicial system – is somewhat transformed in our portion, turning into an instruction aimed at judges, ordering them to be extra careful that justice is carried out.  Thus, two separate commandments dealing with entirely different matters, merge into one within the framework of the judiciary and the Divine instruction to conduct fair trials.
Other commandments with common denominators
The fifth commandment instructs us to honor our parents, while our portion of Mishpatim describes a scenario taken to extreme:  “And he that strikes his father or his mother, shall be put to death…and he that curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.”[4]  I suggest reading the law in Mishpatim pertaining to one who entices a virgin as a derivative of the commandment not to commit adultery.
As to the last commandment – “Thou shall not covet” – the Torah gives a variety of examples: “Thou shall not covert thy neighbor’s house; thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife nor his slave, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.”[5]  These specific examples appear in numerous settings throughout the portion of Mishpatim: in the laws of Jewish and non-Jewish slaves; in the laws pertaining to an ox that had previously killed a man and an ox that is not known to be a “goring ox”; and also in the laws instructing one to offer help to any man, even an enemy – “If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, thou shall surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the donkey of thine enemy lying under its burden, thou shall offer your assistance.”[6]
The mitzvah of Shabbat
The commandment to observe the Sabbath appears in two separate portions, both of which offer a different reason for the observance of this day.  In the portion of Yitro, we are told that the Sabbath reminds us of the creation of the world; whereas the reason given in Mishpatim is a social one – every creature’s need for rest: “…in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and your maidservant’s son and the stranger shall be refreshed.”[7]
In Parshat Mishpatim, the mitzvah of Shabbat is preceded by the mitzvah of Shemita (the Sabbath of the land), which is based on the same format as Shabbat: working the land for six years, and leaving the land to lie fallow on the seventh.  Here, too, the reason given for this mitzvah is a social and ethical one:  “But the seventh year thou shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat.”[8]
The relationship between the mitzvah of Shabbat, as it is depicted in the two portions, may shed some light on the overall relationship between the Ten Commandments and the mitzvot given in Mishpatim.  It seems that Parshat Yitro presents two main courses of action to which every individual must commit in his encounter with God: the ben adam laMakom (Man-to-God) track and the ben adam lachavero (interpersonal, social) track. Two channels of communication between heaven and earth.  Parshat Mishpatim directs the vertical axis – i.e., the channel connecting God and Man – to the social plane.
Hence, the elaboration on commandments pertaining to interpersonal relationships is only to be expected.  The new dimension offered by Parshat Mishpatim is in its interpretation of each of the commandments on the Man-to-God axis.  According to Mishpatim, these commandments also relate to the laws governing interpersonal relationships.  The same “re-direction” can also be found with the mitzvot of Shabbat, the prohibition not to take God’s name in vain, and even with the pivotal commandment – “I am the Lord thy God”.  All are redirected from the Man-to-God plane to the Man-to-Man plane.
The way to heaven, explains our portion of Mishpatim, does not also pass through the mundane; rather – the only way to get to heaven is through the mundane and our worldly life!
In fact, the Ten Commandments in their entirety are translated into interpersonal commandments.  “Eile hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem” – “These are the ordinances you shall set before them” – as they are the gateway to heaven.
[1]  Shemot 21, 24-25
[2]  Mechilta DeRabi Yishmael, tractate of Nezikin, 8; Babylonian Talmud, tractate of Baba Kama 83:2.
[3]  Shemot 23, 1-2
[4]  Shemot 21, 15-17.
[5]  Shemot 20, 14
[6]  Shemot 23, 3-4
[7]  Shemot 23, 12
[8]  Shemot 23, 11

Shabbat Shalom!


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