THE TANACH STUDY CENTER www.tanach.org
In Memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag
Shiurim in Chumash & Navi by Menachem Leibtag
PARSHAT MISHPATIM - abstracts
Part One - Organizing Parashat Mishpatim
Parashat Mishpatim presents a wide array of laws and mitzvot. Due to the detailed nature of the legal content of this parasha, we often neglect to look upon it from a bird's eye view and assess the overall structure. So, let's give it a try. We will first arrange the laws into discernible sections, and then analyze the progression from one section to the next.
The first section, which runs from the beginning of the parasha through 22:19, discusses "case-type" law. Meaning, it addresses a range of specific circumstances in which the court must render a decision between litigants. The parasha then shifts to the imperative form, issuing certain obligations and prohibitions regarding basic, civil conduct. This section, which spans from 22:20-23:9, is clearly demarcated by one prohibition that both opens and closes the section: the prohibition against taunting foreigners. This mitzvah sets the tone for this entire section, which demands upright and ethical behavior: proper treatment of the underprivileged, paying taxes (tithes and firstborn animals), legal integrity, and helping others, including one's foes. The laws of Parashat Mishpatim conclude with a third and final section, which deals with Shabbat, the sabbatical "shemita" year, and the pilgrimage festivals.
This progression may reflect the proper sequence when forming a religious society as demanded of Bnei Yisrael. First and foremost, a competent judicial system is necessary to ensure law and order. Secondly, the citizenry must become sensitive to the needs of others - particularly the underprivileged - even in matters unenforceable by the courts. Only after society has grounded itself on these ideals of moral and ethical conduct can it experience a special relationship with the Almighty, as reflected by the laws of Shabbat and the pilgrimage holidays.
We may detect another pattern in Parashat Mishpatim, as well, one which operates within the framework of Parashat Yitro. Let's consider the unit from Shmot 19 (Bnei Yisrael's arrival at Sinai) through the end of chapter 24 (the end of Mishpatim), and trace the progression of theme "outside-in," from the unit's beginning and end to its center.
This unit begins and ends with a covenant: the Revelation in chapters 19-20 and the ceremony of chapter 24. Immediately following the commandments, God urges the people to recognize Him as the One who revealed Himself at Sinai, and then prohibits idolatry and orders the construction of an altar (20:19-23). These three issues, which parallel the first three of the Ten Commandments (the altar serves to sanctify God's Name, parallel to the third commandment), appear again in Parashat Mishpatim, prior to the account of the ceremony (23:20-25; note "for My Name is in its midst" in 23:21). Moving in one step further, Parashat Mishpatim opens with the freedom of servants after seven years, parallel to the mizvah of Shabbat. This mitzvah is represented at the other end by not only another mention of Shabbat, but also by the mitzvot of "shemita" and the festivals (23:10-9). In between, we find a whole array of laws governing interpersonal conduct, which parallel the final six commandments.
This structure, which features the Sinaitic covenant at either end and civil law in the middle, reflects a fundamental Jewish principle: our religious responsibilities apply first and foremost to our day-to-day, civil conduct. We may never divorce spirituality from social conduct. To the contrary, the implementation of the covenant must occur in the social sphere before any other realm of life.
Part Two - The Second Half of Ma'amad Har Sinai
Although Parashat Mishpatim is best known for its legal content, we should not ignore the Parasha's conclusion, which continues the story of Ma'amad Har Sinai (the receiving of the Torah at Sinai). This final section (Shmot 24) includes: Moshe's relating the laws to the people and their acceptance thereof, the construction of an altar for offering sacrifices, Moshe's public reading of the "book of the covenant," and the ascent of Moshe, Aharon, his sons, and the elders up Mount Sinai. Seemingly, this account simply continues the story begun in Parashat Yitro. Recall that after the Ten Commandments Moshe ascends the mountain to study the laws. God teaches him many mitzvot, recorded in the final verses of Yitro through chapter 23 in Parashat Mishpatim. Moshe now comes down and tells the mitzvot to the people, who emphatically respond, "We will do!" (24:3). They then conduct a formal ceremony, including sacrifices and Moshe's public reading of these laws. This is how the Ramban explains.
Rashi, by contrast, holds that this entire section occurred earlier, before the Ten Commandments. According to his interpretation, this ceremony of Shmot 24 actually took place in Shmot 19, as part of the preparations for Matan Torah. What prompted Rashi to reverse the sequence of the Chumash?
Firstly, merging these two sections could help solve several enigmas. For example, in 19:22,24 God makes an ambiguous reference to "kohanim." To whom does this refer? If chapter 24 occurred at the same time, then this elite group may have been Aharon's sons and the elders who formed a representative body to formally accept the covenant on behalf of the entire nation, as described in 24:9-10. Furthermore, Bnei Yisrael declare "na'aseh" ("we will do") three times in Parshiyot Yitro & Mishpatim. By merging the two sections, this redundancy becomes clearer.
Another advantage of Rashi's approach relates to the "book of the covenant" Moshe reads to the people. Rashi clearly cannot explain as the Ramban does, that this book consisted of the laws of Parashat Mishpatim; according to Rashi, Parashat Mishpatim hasn't happened yet! He therefore understands this book as Sefer Breishit. How appropriate it is for Bnei Yisrael to study Sefer Breishit as part of their formal acceptance of the Torah! Breishit speaks of how and why they are selected as God's nation. Now that Bnei Yisrael accept the responsibilities and privileges of God's nation, they must review the purpose and function of their designation.
Of course, Rashi's approach begs the question, why are two concurrent events separated? If these two chapters occurred simultaneously, why didn't the Torah combine them?
Perhaps the two sections of preparations for the Revelation underscore the two distinct aspects of Matan Torah. Chapter 19 mandates strict measures of discipline and purity necessary in anticipation of a divine revelation: washing clothing, abstaining from marital relations, and keeping a distance from the mountain. Chapter 24, by contrast, presents a far more festive environment, replete with public study, offering and eating sacrifices, and celebration. Both these elements must accompany a spiritual encounter. On the one hand, one's relationship with God must be one of awe and trepidation, which require one to "keep his distance." At the same time, spirituality should serve as a source of great joy over the privilege of establishing a unique relationship with the Almighty.
Abstracts by David Silverberg