Commentary for Mishpatim

24 Jan

The main body of this week’s parshah is a long list of laws.  The large majority of them are simple civic laws.  What happens if someone steals a bull?  What happens if someone kidnaps someone?  What happens if someone’s Ox gores someone else, causing death or injury? Some of the others instruct us to have a just court system.  They are laws whose purpose is simple to ascertain.  They are the basis for a workable society.


Many of the others are laws dictating the treatment of fellow human beings, be they slaves, the poor, or strangers.  Some of the others are laws about the treatment of our animals.  These laws, too, are simple to understand.  God wants us to be good people and to treat others well.


One or two of the laws are ritual laws, prohibiting the worship of other gods.  While these are not moral or civic laws, it is easy for us to understand why God would decree them.


Starting with 23:14, though, this section ends with a series of ritual laws discussing the holidays and some of their practices, before finishing off with the puzzling “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (23:19).”  This series of laws feels woefully out of place.  What do pilgrimage festivals or a few of the specifics of the paschal sacrifice have to do with laws for setting up a civil and just society?


The last chapter of this parshah contains the Israelites’ formal acceptance of God and the Torah, including the well-known “everything God has spoken we will do and we will hearken (24:7).”  This statement was an expression of faith by the Israelites that God’s commands will not lead them down the wrong path, and thus, they will perform the mitzvot even if they do not understand them.


The commandments listed from 23:14 – 19 are all ritual commandments, but there is a lot of variation between them.  The commandment to celebrate Passover in the spring is fully explained right there in the text, while the commandment to celebrate it by eating matzah is referenced back to an early set of commandments and explanations.  Others, such as the commandment to offer the finest fruits of the first crop, is not explained, but a possible reason (to give thanks to God because it is God who makes the fruit grow) is easy to come up with.  Others, such as “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” has no reason given and seems to have no easily discernible reason.


Our vow of “everything God has spoken we will do and we will hearken” covers all of the laws.  It does not matter if they initially make sense to us or not, and it doesn’t not matter if God gives an explanation of them or not, or even if we cannot find an explanation of our own.  All of the laws come from God, and we must trust that there is a reason for them, whether we can understand it or not.  God is our co-pilot, and we need to have faith that God will steer us in the right direction.

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