Commentary for Mishpatim

28 Feb

In last week’s parshah we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. There was smoke and thunder and the Israelites were “seeing the sounds (Ex. 20:15).” According to various midrashim the desert spontaneously bloomed and Mount Sinai hovered in the air, and while the Ten Commandments were being read the rest of the world was completely silent. Moses read the Ten Commandments to us in a voice amplified by God, telling us that there was only one true God, and that this God had some rules for us that we had better follow, with the context of what was going on making it pretty clear that God was going to get very angry if we didn’t follow them. What happened there was clearly a brush with the Divine; an inspiring experience that could leave no doubt that the rules Moses read to us came straight from God and so we had better follow them or else.

Conversely, this week’s parshah is almost entirely about civil regulations and fines and punishments for theft or negligence or personal injury. While Moses’ reading of the Ten Commandments comes with the a picture being painted of spectacular sights and sounds that add a gravitas to the scene, the mitzvot that Moses reads to us this week are devoid of any such description, and their dry nature leads one to conjure up an image of Moses standing there, pointing out the nuances of the differences of the fines for stealing a sheep as opposed to stealing an ox while the Israelites are slumped backwards in their chairs doing their best not to fall asleep.   These rules just don’t seem like the type of rules that a God would make. We can understand that God wants us to celebrate certain holy days or not believe in false gods or not to hurt other people, but deciding how much someone has to pay if they dig a pit and someone else’s donkey falls into it almost seems like it should be beneath God. That is the sort of thing that bureaucrats quibble over, not the Sovereign of the Universe. And yet this week’s parshah ends with the same type of wondrous visuals and public affirmations of God’s sovereignty and fealty to these new laws that were found in last week’s parshah.

In our modern world with our separation of Church and State the idea of Divinely mandated tort laws can seem like a completely foreign concept. This is only because our society has come so far from the anarchy that once was that we have forgotten what the purpose of these laws are. Fortunately, we have this week’s special maftir to remind us.

This week is Shabbat Shekalim, in which we read about the annual half-shekel tax on everyone aged twenty and above, which went to the upkeep of the tabernacle. This maftir is always read on the Shabbat before or coinciding with the beginning of the month of Adar, and it was instituted by the Rabbis for the simple reason that it was a reminder to people that this tax was coming due soon and they needed to make sure they paid their share. Everyone made use of the tabernacle at some point during the year, so everyone was obligated to help pay for its upkeep. If they didn’t pay their tax then the tabernacle would run out of money for its upkeep and eventually fall into a state of disrepair and no one would be able to use it.

The civil and criminal laws discussed in this week’s parshah serve a similar purpose to the half-shekel tax. If everyone doesn‘t “pay their share” by submitting to the system every time it has judged them to be in the wrong, then people will lose faith in the courts and start to take matters of justice into their own hands, and society, like the tabernacle in disrepair, will fall apart. These laws help us to fulfill the commandment God gave to Noah when Noah and his family were tasked with repopulating the world and starting a new society to establish a system of courts. Although they might not seem like it to our modern eyes, the laws given in this week’s parshah are no less Divine and no less worthy of celebration and study than the Ten Commandments that we received last week, for these are the laws that help us hold our society together.

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