Torah Thoughts: Parashat Mishpatim 5779
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Common Sense Rules or Rules of God?
Parashat Mishpatim interrupts the story of the Exodus from Egypt to introduce a long list of laws. The laws that come first deal with civil and criminal matters, considered by the sages as mitzvot sichliot, or common-sense/intellectual laws. They are called that because, according to the sages, these kinds of Torah laws could have been derived by intellectual and logical thinking, even if the Torah had not included them.
The first verse of the parasha introduces these laws. It says, “And these are the rules that you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1). This verse could have started by saying “These are the rules,” but instead it begins by saying “And these are the rules.” Rashi reminds us that every time the Torah says “And these” it means that the following should be considered an addition to what was said before. Right before our verse we find the Ten Commandments, so Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that, just as the Ten Commandments were given at Mount Sinai, so the laws of Parashat Mishpatim were also given at Sinai.
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur (Poland, 1799- 1866), the first Rebbe of the Ger Hasidic dynasty), asked the following question, it is a known fact that all the Torah laws were given at Sinai, so why then did the Midrash sages feel the need to explain that the laws of Parashat Mishpatim also were given at Sinai? The answer is that, although these laws are common-sense/intellectual laws and hence could have been derived by intellectual and logical work, their strength and power lies in the fact that they were given by God at Mount Sinai.
Jewish law (Halacha) is a legal system similar, in many ways, to other legal systems you may be familiar with. It is a body of rules, obligations, and prohibitions that Jews are supposed to observe, study, and interpret. Among these laws you will find that many of them are civil and criminal laws that benefit society, promote social order, and stipulate the rights and obligations of people. In this regard, many of these laws could have been derived by the rabbis or by Jewish jurists, even if they had not been given by God. However, we especially revere and value these laws precisely because they are part of a legal system which we believe originates with God’s wisdom. We continue observing, studying, and reinterpreting these laws because we believe there is an eternal truth in them, a truth we long for and search for. May we be able to see the divine spark every time we learn or observe a Torah law!