For the week ending 14 February 2015 / 25 Shevat 5775

Parshat Mishpatim

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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In his introduction Abarbanel explains that this Parsha is essentially a detailed expansion of the “Ten Sayings” or “Ten Commandments” of Parshat Yitro. The “mishpatim” are generally considered to be the laws that are accessible to human logic and applicable to all societies, whereas the other two divisions of the Torah’s laws — the “chukim” and the “eidot” — are not necessarily accessible to human logic and are intended only for the Jewish nation. The chukim include such laws as ritual impurity, kashrut and sacrificial offerings, while the eidot generally refer to the laws of the various celebrations throughout the calendar year such as Shabbat, Pesach, Succot and Shavuot.

Abarbanel begins by emphasizing that even though the mishpatim are designed to regulate society just like the seven categories of commandments that were given to the “Bnei Noach” (the rest of humanity besides the Jewish People), they are still unique to the Jewish People from two perspectives. First of all, they are brought down as specific cases or as sub-categories of the Ten Commandments, unlike the general principles that characterize the laws of the nations. Secondly, their observance is specifically connected to the concept of reward, both physical and spiritual, which is emphasized at the end of the Parsha. Observance of law in other societies is obligatory but carries no promise of reward.

The Parsha begins with the words, “And these are the laws…” The word “and” connects this Parsha to the previous one which outlined the Ten Commandments. The last five of those commandments refer to the proper behavior between the individual and his fellow Jews. The many mitzvot detailed in chapters 21, 22, and 23 are all applications of those five principles: 1) Don’t murder; 2) Don’t commit adultery; 3) Don’t steal; 4) Don’t bear false witness; 5) Don’t covet.

Although most of these many mitzvot can be clearly understood as logical sub-categories of these five, Abarbanel points out the connections with others that are not so obvious. The first mitzvot of the Parsha relate the rules pertaining to a Jew who is sold by the courts into indentured servitude. These rules deal with the totality of the life of the servant. If these individuals are not dealt with properly, it as if the master is murdering them in a sense. Similarly, striking or cursing a parent is another example of a total regard for the essence of the life of a parent.

Most of the laws in the Parsha that parallel “Don’t commit adultery” are also clearly examples of intimate impropriety. However, “You shall not permit a sorceress to live” and “One who brings offerings to the idols will be destroyed” (Shmot 22:17, 19), seem to have no connection. Abarbanel points out, however, that a sorceress often tried to seduce others into impropriety, and that worshipping idols is adulterous since the Jewish People are, in essence, “married” to G-d.

The laws that parallel “Don’t steal” make it clear that for the Jewish People theft goes far beyond directly and maliciously taking someone else’s property unlawfully. We are responsible for damages caused by our animals and even by our inanimate property. We are also responsible for damages caused by negligence in the act of watching or borrowing someone else’s property.

The mitzvot that parallel “Don’t bear false witness” are the prohibitions against oppressing converts, widows and orphans (Shmot 22:20, 21). The connection here is that lying is a form of oppression. Converts, widows and orphans are often the outcasts of society, and the temptation to twist our words in our dealings with them can be overwhelming.

The last principle, “Don’t covet”, points to different dimensions of our unacceptable preoccupation with material gain even when it is technically legal. Our Parsha cautions us not to covet someone’s money by charging interest. Additionally, we should not covet his possessions, even to the point of being required to return nightly a garment that we have taken as security on a loan. As well, the commandments not to revile G-d and not to curse leaders of the people refer to the One who commanded the laws and the ones that judge and enforce them. We should not consider these commandments an infringement of our selfish material rights (Shmot 22:24-27).

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