Parshat Mishpatim

Love, Law, Life”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D. ‘11


As the 18th of the weekly Torah portions, the placement of Mishpatim symbolically points to its role in elucidating the nexus of law and life, a connection that is immediately expressed verbally: “Eileh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem” —”These are the laws that you should place before them.”


Mishpatim continues Shemot’s shift from narrative to revelation, establishing that the laws are placed before the people, not in the sense that laws are more important than human beings (as, perhaps, if they were coming from above), but as quite the opposite. They are intended for our benefit, and we are free to accept or reject. The laws of Mishpatim are Divinely-offered, not imposed—and G-d’s offer and our acceptance is a conscious making of a contract that is intended for our benefit.


The process of the forging the Divine-human brit unfolds in the wave-like movement of Mishpatim’s tripartite structure. Beginning with intimately interpersonal laws that range from the treatment of slaves to kindness to strangers, Mishpatim next stipulates communal social, cultural and religious laws— the commandment to observe the Sabbatical Year, a reiteration of the commandment to observe Shabbat and Pilgrimage Festivals, the rules of sacrificial offerings. These prohibitions culminate in the law against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, shifting from the focus on human relationships and the human-Divine relationship into a completely different arena. Ultimately, the focus of this law is on heightened awareness in general, specifically on the feelings of animals. This perspective—that all life has value, that animals have feelings and that we are brought closer to the Divine when we are conscious of and sensitive to our relationships with all creatures—was a unique and revolutionary perspective in the ancient world—and is far from mainstream today.


After the laws have been communicated, a corresponding tripartite series of inward movements take place. First, the whole people assent to the covenant by their collective acceptance of the laws. After the ratification of the proposed covenant, the people’s representatives Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, ascend the mountain and see G-d. Finally, there is a one-on-one encounter between human and Divine when Moses goes on alone and spends forty days on the mountain. Each event is a step in the process of accepting Divine guidelines that models how our increased consciousness and conscientiousness can elevate us spiritually, aligning us with the Divine, bringing us to closer to Oneness in every relationship, in every act, in every time and season.


Mishpatim asks much of us. But this brit with the Divine also comes with a compassionate Divine guarantee—the promise of an angel who will go before us, guard us on our way and bring us to the place that G-d has made ready for us. The laws placed before us are a series of directions for navigating life, and there is no assurance that following them will be easy. But the image of this guiding and guarding angel is ever-hopeful and ever-reassuring.  As we engage, every day of our lives, in the hard and unending work of trying to live with awareness and integrity, we are not alone. As in the various interpretations of law that are characterized in W.H. Auden’s poem “Law, Like Love,” we are human; we struggle in our understanding and interpretation of what Law is, what it is for, what it means. Mishpatim reminds that the guideposts of Divinely-crafted laws are means to our unification with the Divine, inexorably accompanied by Divine love.

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