Parshat Mishpatim

Torah Reading for Week of February 4-10 2018

“The Wholeness of the Law”
By Rabbi Michael Menitoff, AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

The Sabbath of Mishpatim (February 10th) is also known as Shabbat Shekalim. It is the first of the Arba Parashiyot, Four Special Sabbaths, spread out over more than a month-and-a-half, leading up to the observance of the festival of Pesach. On this Shabbat, we also recite Birkat Hachodesh, the Blessing of the New Month of Adar, in which the holiday of Purim is celebrated. Thus, the liturgy and the lection make this Shabbat a rich and textured one, in which many aspects of the Jewish calendar are co-mingled with the regular Scriptural portion. What is recited this Shabbat represents the integration of Jewish life and law, and the inextricable link of each part to the whole.

The portion of Mishpatim itself conveys a similar sense of that connectedness . Its proliferation of social, ethical and ritual laws, side by side one another, argues for the unbreakable bond between them. The numerous mitzvot in Mishpatim can be subsumed under the rubrics of those “between a human being and G-d” and “between one human being and another.” It is hard to envisage authentic Jewish living without striving for the fulfillment of both categories of mitzvot.

To celebrate holidays and perform ceremonial commandments without concomitant sensitivity in interpersonal relationships is limiting and incomplete. On the other hand, the observance of ritual mitzvot is part of what makes us Jews. At their best, these laws help make us better people. For example, understanding and keeping the laws of Kashrut (dietary laws) potentially raises our awareness of the sanctity of life. Observing Shabbat offers opportunity, in an otherwise hectic week, to reflect on relationships with family and friends, and to take appropriate remedial action, if need be.

The Rabbis even comment on the broader linkage between the laws of Mishpatim and other commandments, specifically those which precede it. Scrutinizing the meaning of every letter and word, they ask, ” Why does the portion of Mishpatim, in the original Hebrew, begin with ‘And these are the commandments’ rather than simply ‘These are the commandments?’” Why does the Hebrew letter “vav,” meaning “and,” attach itself to the first word? The answer to their question, as reported by the commentator Rashi, originally in Mechilta Nezikin, is that, just as the laws of the previous portion of Yitro, The Ten Commandments, were given at Sinai, so too were the numerous, detailed, and specific laws of Mishpatim. The latter are of no less weight and gravity than the Decalogue itself. They are seamlessly bound together. They are a single unit.

The Talmud (B’rachot 12a) informs us that The Ten Commandments were originally recited at every Morning Service. However, that practice was discontinued because of “the insinuations of the Minim (heretics)” that, while The Ten Commandments were revealed at Sinai and require scrupulous observance, other laws are of lesser or secondary importance.

Today, congregations render homage to The Ten Commandments by standing when they are read. Nevertheless, we view them in their fuller context. They are part of an integrated whole which includes, but is not limited to Mishpatim. “They are our light and the length of our days.” All are Torah.