Majestic Mandates

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Parshat Mishpatim begins with the verse, "Ve'eilah... And these are the ordinances you shall place before them," and continues with all sorts of torts and laws about monetary obligations. Rashi immediately explains that the letter vov/and at the beginning of the word always connects the ideas that follow with the preceding ideas. Therefore, just as the preceding laws were given at Sinai, so too do these laws come directly from God at Sinai.

            Who would have thought otherwise? Wasn't the entire Torah with all its laws and mandates transmitted to Bnei Yisroel at Sinai? The most straightforward explanation may be the one given by Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi. While it is true that Hashem taught Moshe all the laws and statutes of the Torah while Moshe was on Sinai for forty days, these laws were at the beginning, accompanied by the same thunder and lightening as the Ten Utterances themselves. Only after these laws were given did Moshe ascend even higher where Hashem taught him the rest of the Torah. However, the deeper message is that although these laws appear to be general civil laws similar to the laws of any society, these laws are divine in origin. These laws were instituted before creation as part of the Torah that Hashem used as the blueprint for the world, writes Rabbi Munk. As such, they are immutable and will never change, even as times change and society changes, continues Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter. That's why the other nations rejected the Torah, for Torah laws did not conform to accepted social mores of the times.

            We can easily understand this argument by looking at some of the questions that moral and medical ethicists have been discussing over the last fifty or seventy five years here, but have been discussing in many cultures both modern and ancient. Is abortion murder? How about euthanasia? Or assisted suicide? Does one need to keep a newborn alive if it has (severe - who decides) birth defects? Torah law does not change with changing moral sensibilities.

            It is precisely this idea of the divine origin of all our laws that explains why we are informed of the transmission and "genealogy" of the Mishnayot of Pirkei Avot as having come from Sinai along with the laws. For these Mishnayot, explains Rabbi Frand in The Power of a Vort, citing Rav Ovadiah M'Bartenura. are meant to perfect our character, and indeed, this is the aim of all the laws themselves. What human mind would have forbidden listening to negative information about others when they were true? (Even many Jews are unaware that, "But it's true!" does not erase the sin of loshon horo.) Even more striking, what human mind would encourage someone to help his enemy before helping his friend when both are in need of assistance at the same time? Only the mind of the Divine could incorporate these laws to fine tune the moral compass of mankind and create sensitivity to all. These are Divine ethics, not human ethics.

            The Prophet Isaiah declares, "Zion will be redeemed through justice." Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi  offers a profound interpretation on this prophecy. We are also told that Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world. In other words, the Torah was the blueprint for all of creation. Since that is the case, these laws about oxen, chickens, fire and thieves existed before these entities were actually created, and these were created so that man could improve his character by performing these mitzvoth. Human law was created to address circumstances, while Torah law was created a priori. That's why human law changes as circumstances and society change, whereas Torah law is immutable. Just as an architect prepares his blueprints and his plans before he digs a foundation or lays a single brick, so did Hashem first write the Torah and then create the world according to those plans. When we live our lives with the goal of perfecting the "building", the world we live in and ourselves, we are moving toward the goal of a perfect, just world, the world of redemption.

            If one studies the Torah deeply, one will see connections between the laws and human beings, and all of creation, writes Rabbi Yerucham Levovivitz z”l in Daat Torah. The human body has 248 limbs that parallel the 248 positive mitzvoth of the Torah and 365 sinews that parallel the 365 negative commandments. Man was created this way to reflect the idea that Man can live his life in such a way as to become a living Sefer Torah. Even parents were created so that humans could honor and fear mothers and fathers. If this were not the purpose, God could have easily created an advanced system of parthenogenesis for human reproduction.

            These mundane financial laws come right after the record of the most awe inspiring experience of all mankind, immediately after God gave us the Torah at Sinai. Would it not have been more appropriate to put a more exalted spiritual passage here, perhaps the Shema? Instead we have laws about money, kesef. But kesef can also be translated as desire, notes Rabbi Binyain Appel in Mesameach Zion. We are meant to see spirituality within these laws, to try to understand the premises Hashem built into these laws that reveal what Hashem wants of us, and the laws are meant to create a desire to approach Hashem.

            These laws form the basis of our belief system. They declare that everything we have and every situation we find ourselves in comes directly from Hashem, and I have no right to that which Hashem has given to another, writes Rabbi Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe. That's why Hashem will ask us on our final judgment if we acted faithfully in our business dealings, for how we act in money matters is a clear reflection of our belief in God and in how He runs the world.

            In truth, all the mitzvoth are meant to bring us closer to Hashem. While our Sages have tried to find the reasons for mitzvoth their taamim, that is because such an exercise gives us a taam, a taste for the mitzvah, and makes us appreciate the mitzvah more fully. But it does not give us the real reason for the mitzvah, as only Hashem knows this, writes Rabbi Gifter z”l. Human law depends on human logic, and therefore is subject to change, but Divine law is based on logic beyond our understanding and therefore never changes.

             Consider the requirement about a garment that was used as collateral for a loan. Every night the lender must return the garment to his debtor, and every morning he picks it up again, lest the poor man remain cold overnight. Would any human logic demand such inconvenience of a lender, continues Rabbi Gifter z”l quoting the Midrash? However, that law teaches us about the chessed of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. No matter how indebted we are to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, He returns our souls to us each day. We come to appreciate Hashem's chessed to us through this law about human interaction. Or consider the "fate" of a Jewish thief who cannot repay his theft. He is not warehoused in a prison where his negative traits will likely be reinforced, but he is placed in a stable home to learn proper behavior so that he can be truly rehabilitated. It is because Torah law comes from this higher and Divine logic that Jews should take their differences to a beis din rather than to a secular court, even when the decisions would probably be the same. for then we acknowledge that Torah law rules our lives and we want the relationship with Hashem.

            Our laws even consider the "feelings" of inanimate objects. For example, the kohain must ascend to the altar on a ramp rather than on steps, for climbing the steps may reveal some nakedness to the "steps" and embarrass them. If the Torah is so concerned with the honor of inanimate objects, writes Rabbi Beyfus in Yalkut Lekach Tov, how much more sensitive must we be to the dignity of our fellow human beings who were created in the image of God. In this sense, the interpersonal laws are also laws between man and God.

            Not all the laws of Torah are applicable to all people, and certainly not all situations apply to all people. Even if we cannot implement particular laws in our own lives, writes Rabbi Levovivitz z”l, just learning about them can give us a small window into the "mind" of Hashem, so to speak. To know Hashem at all, one must know human nature, one must be sensitive to the emotions of others. When studying the laws of damages, one should become sensitive both to the emotions of the one suffering the damage to his property and to the emotions of the perpetrator, especially if the damage was done accidentally. Is the homeowner concerned about replacing his broken window, and also, is the child upset that he broke the window? This is a major purpose of these laws, not just to create a better functioning society, but to create a more sensitive society. Torah is not about punishment as secular law is, but about creating sensitivity to each other, adds Rabbi Beyfus.

            Studying the laws helps us understand what Hashem wants from us. Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon notes that both sides of the luchot, the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Utterances, were equal. While one tablet dealt with laws between Man and God, the so-called spiritual laws, the other tablet dealt with the laws between Man and his fellow Man. Since both tablets were equal, one should feel the same spiritual connection to Hashem when performing social mitzvoth as when one performs spiritual/religious mitzvoth. When you push yourself beyond self to connect to others and treat them well, you are emulating Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself When you restrain yourself from anger, when you are generous to others, and so many other positive interactions, you are connecting to Hashem and living up to the majestic mandate of the Torah He has gifted to us.

            There is an additional subtle reason Hashem placed these laws immediately after the Sinai experience Hashem is further reminding us that there must be no separation between our religious lives and our daily, mundane, business lives reminds us Rabbi Rivlin z”l. There is only one unified world,  z”lour rabbis for questions of kashrut, for example, but think we can solve business problems involving others by ourselves, says Rabbi Pincus z”l. We tend to forget the nuances of Torah as we go about our jobs, for example, using the copying machine for personal business or chatting to friends of the boss' time. Did we get permission, or are we, in fact stealing?

            Hashem did not give the Torah to the other nations. We are privileged to have received the Torah. But it is only when we can appreciate the many nuances of the Torah (and we can never understand them all) and the beautiful system the Torah lays out for our lives, writes Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr z”l citing the Kotzker Rebbe z”l, that we can truly thank Hashem with a full heart and sing His praises.