Mishpatim: Foundations of Torah

By Rabbi Sharon Litwin

Our Director of Congregational Learning, Rabbi Sharon, periodically provides a Dvar Torah for The Jewish Standard of northern New Jersey. We are pleased to share her most recent commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.

I am blessed to be director of congregational learning at a wonderful synagogue. I work with students of all ages who ask the most poignant questions about all kinds of things. “Why do we pray?” “What is the most important Mitzvah?” “How did Moses get the Torah from God?” “Why did you become a rabbi?” “Why be Jewish?” Those are tough and important questions and I think they deserve thoughtful and considered responses. Just the fact that students ask questions is a matter that deserves respect and honor, as what is a Jewish mind, if it isn’t a questioning mind. I always, always, come back to the same answer. Torah.torah

You may ask how the answer, “Torah,” is appropriate as an answer to some of my students’ questions, but I think of Torah in a holistic way. Torah is our guidebook, Torah is our history book, Torah is our theology text, Torah is our principles, Torah is what binds us as a people over geography and time, and Torah is the foundation for the way that we live as Jews, no matter how learned, observant, secular, literate, or assimilated.

I remember as a teenager, studying Parshat Mishpatim with a teacher and being introduced to the concepts of hok and mishpat, statutes and laws., the two types of mitzvot, commandments given to us in the Torah. (It is interesting that we have two parshiot, Hukkat in the Book of Numbers and Mishpatim, our parsha this week in Exodus, which are named for the two types of mitzvot in the Torah.) I learned via my teacher that our great sage Maimonides explained the difference between hok and mishpat like this: A mishpat is a law we could figure out on our own – a law that is logical in terms of social or personal life. And a hok is a law that we could not intuit on our own, i.e. it is a command that requires revelation by God. An example of a famous mishpat is “V’ahavta l’reyecha kamocha,” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We could intuit this because we know as humans it is better to treat someone the way that we want to be treated. An example of a hok, a mitzvah which we may have trouble understanding the rationale, may be shaatnez, the prohibition of wearing a garment that is a mixture of linen and wool.

And so I come back to this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, and as I read each law, I am able to use my own questioning mind and intuition, and I understand that even thousands of years ago, what it meant to be a Jew, to be rooted in Torah, was to have a fair system of justice and a fair way to treat all of the people in our community. Mishpatim starts out telling us that no Hebrew shall have another Hebrew slave who serves a family for more than six years, after which that slave is freed. Someone may need to work off their debt, but no Jew owes their entire life in slavery. We learn about measured compensation for killing another, for stealing, for injury. We learn that our property is valued and that if someone feels they are owed, they can take the matter to a court and that a standard should be set. We learn that there is restitution for animals, for virgins, for miscarriages. And we learn that we do not wrong the stranger, for we were strangers. We learn empathy, we learn charity, we learn fair trade, we learn ethical treatment of animals, we learn to take care of our land, and we learn that we should rest on Shabbat. And of course, we learn to do all of this with enthusiasm.

When Moses brings these amazing humane and at the time, new, ideas to the Children of Israel, they don’t wait a minute to hear them, to digest them, to say let’s see… No, immediately, they say “naaseh v’nishma,” we will do and we will listen. They go all in, to use a term from our popular culture. Because they know that these Mishpatim, which they could have figured out on their own, are logical in terms of society and personal life, but they are not a given in every society. Yet we are blessed, because we can ask questions of life, and know that we can always turn back to Torah, because it will always be our guide, even when humanity doesn’t use our intuition and our best social conscience. Parshat Mishpatim, more than even the Ten Commandments of last week’s parsha, is the foundation for all of the answers to the questions that students have had over the ages. It is the reason that I can always answer, Torah.