V’eleh Ha’mishpatim: The Deeper Meaning of  Am Yisrael’s Legal System

Between Man and Man

Mishpatim are interpersonal laws—bein adam l’chveiro—that govern the smooth functioning of human society. At first glance, it would seem that while we clearly need Divine guidance when it comes to spiritual matters, like Tefilin or Shabbat, when it comes to an orderly society, we would be able to figure things out on our own. It’s for this reason that the Torah specifically states, “And these are the laws (mishpatim),” to which Rashi says, “Just like the earlier laws are from Sinai, so too are these.” This teaches us that not only the spiritual laws, but the entire social framework of the Jewish nation is rooted in the revelation at Sinai. But why is that? Why did God need to get involved in matters that clear-thinking human beings could have dealt with on their own?

The sod, the deeper underlying meaning of this, is that even within the every day societal life of the Jewish people, there is a dimension that is hidden from human perception and comprehension. Just like every Jew has a body and a soul, so too the societal life of the Jewish nation has a Godly neshama that is garbed within the structure of Jewish society. Our prophets teach us that when the daily, interpersonal life of the Jewish people is anchored in justice and truth, then the Shechina, which is the soul of the nation, rests among us.

From this we understand that there is a Godly dimension to the functioning of Jewish society. The truth is, human intellect and understanding can bring a sense of orderliness to how society functions, but the mishpatim and the entire Jewish system are aiming for something much higher. Their goal is to refine and prepare the collective “body” of Am Yisrael for the presence of it’s soul, the Shechina. Beneath the surface, the entire essence of Am Yisrael is a manifestation and revelation of Hashem in the world; not just through tefillin or Shabbat candles or in synagogue, but also in the business world, in day-to-day interpersonal relations, and within the family.  Therefore, these realms of life also need to come from Sinai, from Divine revelation, in order to guide us in how to mold our lives into kaylim, into vessels for the presence of Shechina, so that through us the Godly light can shine forth into the world. Mitzvot. A Whole Other Dimension

Human insight and guidance, no matter how deep, is only so deep. It can never penetrate to the beneath-the-surface layers of reality. Hashem’s mitzvot, on the other hand, encompass everything; the body and the soul, the chitzoniut and the p’nimiut, the entirety of creation, and the flow of Divine ohr. Every mitzvah—those between man and God, and those between man and man— take into consideration every layer of reality. Every mitzvah sees, so to speak, the soul within every situation, and is Divinely crafted accordingly.

This perspective is dramatically different from non-Jewish understandings of God, day-to-day life, and spirituality. They see God involved in His world, and people involved in theirs. They see God as detached, perhaps as a higher Being that people can reach out to, while we see God and kedusha as part of this world. Mitzvot are not a way out of this world, rather they are how we bring Hashem, His sanctity-kedusha, into every aspect of this world, and every corner of our lives.

“He has not done this for any other nation, He did not make his laws, mishpatim, known to them.” (Tehillim 127:20)

The uniqueness—segula—of the Jewish nation is the revelation of God even within the simplest aspects of life. This expresses itself in mishpatim and in the search for justice in our disputes which itself is the search for God in life. Indeed, this is what Moshe said to Yitro regarding dealing with disputes between people: “When the nation comes to me in search of God.” The nekuda ha’pnimit, the inner essence of justice is the search for truth for emett, the seal and signature of God. This means that every situation within the legal framework of Jewish society is an ambassador of Hashem’s light in the world. As such, mishpatim must eminate from Sinai. For if they didn’t, then it would be as if our judgements were actually counterfeit representatives of the deep light of truth.

Sanhedrin and Mikdash

Our sages said: “Why is the parsha of societal laws found next to the parsha dealing with the mizbeach, the alter in the Temple? This teaches us that the Sanhedrin, the high court, needs to be located next to the alter.”

The alter is the place of connection to the highest realms, and it’s this connection which lies within the essence of prayer, the inner “place” where we shed ourselves in relation to Hashem. The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, expresses the full force of man, of human intellect. In a sense, prayer is an expression of what man isn’t—hitbatlut—while the thoughtful judgements of the Sanhedrin are an expression of what man is—man’s yeshut. The Torah’s command to situate the Sanhedrin next to the alter is meant to fuse the is and the isn’t dimensions of our existence. With this in mind, we can understand the puzzling idea that those chosen to sit on the Sanhedrin must be able to formulate one hundred and fifty different ways that they could declare an impure insect to be ritually pure. One would think that people of such outstanding intellect would be highly susceptible to arriving at conclusions that would contradict what the Torah truly intends. However, we are confident that the sages of the Sanhedrin would recognize their potential for error and would therefore pray and reach out for Divine assistance to arrive at the proper conclusions. This tells us that even human intellect, no matter how clear and sharp, needs an infusion of higher, Godly insight and assistance. Indeed, no matter how great and wise the person, Hashem’s shechina only rests on those that are able to see their virtual nothingness—their hitbatlut—in the face of God.

“Success,” not just that of prophets and those who invest themselves in tefilla, but also the judges of Israel, is achieved by thoroughly sublimating oneself to Hashem. This is the deep, inner meaning of Jewish social justice—“God stands in the midst of the Godly congregation”—meaning: Hashem’s deep ohr is revealed within the wise rulings of the judges, and infuses them with the wisdom required to judge truthfully; in a manner that includes every aspect and detail of the situation, both those that are apparent on the surface, and those that are hidden beneath the surface. In a Jewish court of law, unlike other courts, human intellect is but the outer garb of an inner sanctity.

Principles and Their Applications

There is another important insight drawn from the fact that mishpatim emirate from Sinai.

The Ten Commandments, revealed at Sinai, are grand statements and general principles of emuna, spirituality, and morality. Mishpatim, on the other hand, relate to the nitty-gritty details of life. People often make the mistake of thinking that the Godly light is found exclusively in the realm of big, lofty concepts, principles, and aspirations, and they therefore pay little attention to the details of their personal lives and actions. Indeed, other religions often focus on lofty concepts like loving all mankind and valuing all of existence, but then overlook the need to bring the holy, healing light of God into every little, down-to-earth corner of life. This is a type of theoretical spirituality that rends the fabric that connects the body and the soul, the surface with the deepest realities. “And these are the mishpatim …” comes to teach us that without careful attention to the ox and the garment—to the real world daily circumstances of human society—to thoroughly adjudicating cases of one dollar with the same seriousness as that of a thousand dollars, the truth of God will be absent, and the potential for drawing closer to God will simply vanish.

Just like the great principles of emuna—of spirituality and morality—are rooted in Divine revelation, the same is true for the minutiae. And, all those that seek Hashem and long for that sublime connection, that dveikut, must seek it in it’s totality; in the bigness of existence, and in the truth, justice and Godly integrity of every detail.


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Translated by Shimon Apisdorf