September 30, 2023
September 30, 2023

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The well-known explanation for parshat Mishpatim—following the revelation at Har Sinai—is so we learn that even seemingly secular laws were given on the mountain and have a divine character. Yet, at first blush, the organization of laws seems random. Moreover, the parsha deals with far more than civil law. The parsha is carefully structured and serves to focus us on Hashem’s kindnesses and our obligations to Him.

The first aliya begins with instructions concerning a Jew who sank so low as to steal and then was sold into servitude in order to effect compensation. The aliyah also details a situation where a man feels compelled to sell his own daughter as a servant. It, then, goes on to address murder, striking a parent, kidnapping and cursing a parent and culminates with making compensation for assault. Thus, the parsha immediately connects the most glorious human experience, the divine revelation, with individuals who have sunk to the lowest stratum of society and with reprehensible actions.

We are, thus, reminded that Hashem is present not only in the lofty heights of a mountain engulfed in fire, thunder and lightning, and accessible by only the incredibly the greatest prophet, but Hashem is with even the lowliest people and the most debased situations. Nor should all be overlooked that this aliyah—and, indeed, each aliyah in the parsha—concludes with some act of kindness, repair or reconciliation.

At the conclusion of first aliyah, we have compensation for assault; the next aliyah concludes with the compensation for theft; the third with the injunction to return deposits; the fourth to assist in unloading an overworked animal; the fifth tells us not to cook the kid in its own mother’s milk; in the sixth, we are told that Hashem will bless us with bread, water and there will be no sickness; and the seventh relates that Moses went back to Hashem to bring down to us one of the greatest gifts, the thoughts of God rendered into the language of man—that is to say, the oral and written Torah.

The first aliyah ended with compensation and the second continues that theme. The second aliyah deals with injuries caused by either intent or with culpable negligence. Although the third aliyah seems to deal with the same issue, there is a subtle difference. The third aliyah deals with injuries that might be looked on as caused by something more haphazard or more accidental, the animal “accidentally” strayed into another’s field or the fire “just” got out of hand. In point of fact, there are no “accidents.”

Bad things do not happen by themselves, Hashem is behind all events. He brings about that which we deserve as a result of our actions. This is similar to the guardian discussed in this aliyah. The guardian is responsible for the consequences of his own actions, as are we. From a different perspective, the successful guardian is akin to Hashem, who always looks after us. This explains some of the other matters discussed in the aliyah. Those matters relate to straying from Hashem, falling under the sway of sorcerers and idol worship. Such things are similar to the human seducers mentioned in the aliyah. As noted above, the aliyah ends on a positive note. It conjures us to be kind to the convert, not to oppress the widow orphan, to lend fellow Jews money without interest and to ensure that security deposits are returned. As we do these kindnesses to others, so Hashem will do unto us.

After reading about Hashem’s kindnesses, the fourth aliyah reminds us of our obligations to Him and to His representatives who administer justice and His laws. The following aliyah, then, provides us with instructions on how to administer justice in a manner analogous to how Hashem deals with us. Thereafter, the aliyah relates events that will inculcate within us a feeling of closeness to Hashem. This includes our dependency upon Him during the year of shemitah, the pilgrimage festivals when we come to his home, reliving the Exodus from Egypt via the korban Pesach, expressing gratitude for the first fruits and an act of kashrut to insulate us against cruelty or callousness.

The sixth and seventh aliyahs relate the benefits that will be bestowed upon us if we strive and achieve that closeness to Hashem. The seventh aliyah places the focus on two things in particular which can engender that closeness to Hashem. It focuses on the land of Israel, and on the Torah that will be given to Moshe, when he ascends once more to Har Sinai.

An initial casual look at the parsha makes one think of civil law. Examining the parsha’s structure reveals that its focus is not on the civil, but the spiritual. The parsha serves to remind us that in Judaism, there is nothing purely secular. Everything is a matter of religion. Everything and everyone—from the person sold as a slave at the parsha’s outset to the greatest prophet at the conclusion—is of concern to Hashem. As we see in this parsha, even loaning a penny is a religious and spiritual act for which we cannot charge interest, but is of great interest to God.

William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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