Parshat Mishpatim: Civil Society and Har Sinai

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

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After the high of Parshat Yitro featuring the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai as all the mountains quaked and lightning lit up the sky, we encounter Parshat Mishpatim. At first blush, what appears is a dry, technical treatment of issues in civil law – property rights, rules of damages, employee rights, and the like. How did we go from the lofty revelation of the ten commandments to the subdued, cold legalism of this week’s parsha? In fact, after being interrupted by the litany of laws presented in the first half of the parsha, at the end of Mishpatim the narrative of the Sinai revelation continues. Why not continue straight from Parshat Yitro into Chapter 24 of Shemot, finish the Mount Sinai narrative and proceed to its ongoing actualization through the construction of the Mishkan with God’s ongoing presence amongst the people -and save the laundry list of laws and regulations for later? 

In a shiur from 1969, Rav Joseph B. Solovitchik described how in Europe, Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim was known as the annual celebration of the ‘Chevra Shas,’ the groups of Jews who would gather each week to study Talmud together in Shul. The week of Parshat Mishpatim was the perfect occasion to celebrate the study of the Torah shebe’al peh, the Oral Torah. So much rabbinic energy and wisdom has been poured into the sugyot that emerge from our parsha, making up the bulk of the opening masechtot of Seder Nezikin and the halakhic codes on Choshen Mishpat, with thousands of pages of the rabbinic tradition devoted to the minutiae of these topics. 

If, in fact, God’s vision for the Jewish people is to serve as a mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,’ a nation that is meant to inspire the world towards righteousness, then there can be no part of the Torah more central to that vision than Parshat Mishpatim. 

As Rav Yehuda teaches in Bava Kama (30a), ‘one who wishes to be righteous should immerse themselves in the laws of Nezikin (damages).’ For it is precisely this set of laws- those that dictate how we build a just and ethical society – which leads us towards righteousness. 

Beneath the dry rulings on the borrowers and the goring ox and the claiming of collaterals is a vision of a just society, the kind of society we are called upon to build, the kind of society that is at the forefront of God’s mandate for us as Torah Jews to develop in this world.

Looking ahead to ‘the day after,’ we who live in the State of Israel will need to face a serious reckoning regarding our ultimate mission. In the days and months leading up to October 7, our country faced an unprecedented breakdown in societal cohesion. Political and religious groups facilitated a chasm between us, nearly shattering our vision of a shared society for the whole Jewish people. The war and its aftermath have certainly done a great deal to reignite our common sense of identity and purpose, but this cohesion forged by crisis is already beginning to somewhat fray.  When “the day after” comes, our challenge will be not to return to October 6th. We need to already now build new means for creating dialogue, respect, and partnership, to ensure that all sectors of Israel continue to build a better society together.

There is a tradition attributed to the Arizal that prior to beginning the morning prayers, one should accept upon oneself the mitzva of loving their fellow, and an even earlier tradition, appearing already in the Gemara (Bava Batra 10a), that one should give charity before beginning to pray. These rituals are intended to put our Avodat Hashem in perspective; if we are not fully invested in caring for others and building a just society, if we do not see in these pursuits our ultimate religious and spiritual ideals, then we have simply misunderstood the Torah itself. It becomes impossible to create a meaningful relationship with God if we don’t begin with respect for one another. Only through commitment to building a just society as an inherently religious value will we succeed in fulfilling the bedrock of the Torah; only then will we be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

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