Exodus 21:1 -24:18
Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Mishpatim expounds and expands the Ten Commandments given in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro. The Jewish people are blessed with a system of law and rules to live by. Why weren’t “Ten” rules for living enough? Why does God give Moses further instruction? The laws explained in this week’s portion apply to situations that evolve from every day interactions among human beings. Even though the Ten Commandments say do not steal, this week’s portion further elucidates what happens to thieves and what happens in specific situations of theft.
The statues in this week’s portion help keep the peace when conflict arises between human beings. It talks about what happens when two people fight or when an animal gets out of control. It reminds us also of some religious obligations about the festivals. The continuation of the giving of the Law reminds us that we are complex beings living in a complex society and we need answers for how to navigate morally and justly through a variety of situations.
In other words our Sages agree this portion is a continuation of the Revelation at Sinai. It didn’t stop with the Ten Commandments but Jewish laws were given about much more than just the initial Ten. Jewish law and Jewish ways of handling every situation have evolved over time and interpretation. Luckily our ancestors devoted significant time and effort to not only catalogue the mitzvot but to discuss them. And still today we are engaged in a similar process of working through Jewish law in the face of contemporary society.
We can readily see that the laws and rules and statutes of Parshat Mishpatim are a continuation of the Ten Commandments because the end of the Torah portion reverts back to the narrative style and tells the story of what happens after God reveals these laws to Moses. Moses writes this all down and then presents it to the people. He reads the Covenant to them and they respond with one voice, “We will do it and we will observe it.” (Ex. 24:7). This enthusiasm by the Israelites is an affirmation of their part in the Covenantal process. It is not just God commanding but it the Israelites giving their wholehearted affirmation!
Today more Jews than ever before have checked out of Judaism and Jewish institutions. They are ambivalent about God, Torah and the people Israel. They are ignorant of our traditions and customs and frankly, many don’t really know what to think or do. Perhaps you are someone with more than a healthy skepticism about the validity of Jewish life in the 21st Century.
But now more than ever the teachings, and Ten Commandments and values of Jewish tradition speak to us and help us live a deeper and richer life of meaning. By listening to the stories and thoughts of great Jewish thinkers and teacher we might find out that our own roots have a lot and stories have a positive impact upon our lives. This week’s portion, Mishapatim, helps us encounter the beginnings of Jewish laws, commandments and ideas about living life with others. The Talmud, Shulchan Aruch and other major Jewish works of halacha, or Jewish law continues that encounter for us. Responsa literature, the questions of law and practice posed to important rabbinic legal scholars throughout the ages also help us synthesize the past and the present for the future. Through the study of these powerful texts and an encounter with them we can reclaim our heritage and reclaim the revelation at Sinai for each of us! The Revelation is never over. It continues through us and to us!
I hope that you might be curious enough to engage in that encounter! I wait with open books and yes, open arms!