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Parshah Mishpatim is focused on, as the name implies, laws, mishpatim being the second word of the portion. In mishpatim Hashem jumps from giving us the Ten Commandments, the basis for our law, and begins to gives us the laws regarding, among many others things, slavery, selling your daughter before puberty, and what happens if you have an ox that destroys your neighbors home.
What does this have to do with us today? More than you may think!
First of all, the question needs to be asked, why, after setting down the ten commandments, the ten mitzvot that are the basis for our relationship with G-d and man, does Hashem run full speed into talking about some crazy slavery laws? For a few reasons.
1. We are watching as G-d takes a bad situation and makes it more fair and compassionate.
Slavery was a big reality at the time, no matter what reservations and objections we have today. G-d was taking what was a terrible practice and trying to humanize it.
Think about this, the Israelites were just freed from slavery in Egypt. G-d is saying, “Remember the hard lives you just had? Well guess what! You can’t do that to anyone else now either!” G-d is grabbing the reigns, so to speak, and gradually re-directing the course of reality. The argument goes that if G-d had come and said “No more slavery!” it would be like trying to teach a caveman to dial a cellphone. It is so outside their realm of understanding that they weren’t ready for it yet. In fact, at the time, being a “bondsman” was a way to sort of “fix your credit”. An Israelite was supposed to choose another Israelite over a slave of another nation, even if they “cost” more, to make sure that one tribesman helped another. And after six years, or the Jubiliee year, they were to be released from their bond. At least there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
2. G-d wants to show us that there is no “realm of religion” in the Creator’s eyes.
Unlike a Western point of view where religion deals solely with spirituality and ritual, or a separation of the Israelite “temple” and civil court, to be a true mensch (a good person) and a chassid (a pious person), you need to be “scrupulous in matters of civil and tort law”. Judaism knows no separation between the court and the Temple.
Ramban tells us that the civil law is an extension of the tenth commandment, forbidding covetousness. So in order to know what not to covet, we have to know the rights and property of others.
3. G-d doesn’t want us to struggle alone.
Towards the end of the portion we find the mention of lending money to our fellows without interest. In fact, the phrasing is “When you lend money”, not “if”. Lending to the poor is not an option, it is obligatory! The commentary states that not only are we to lend money with no expectation of invested return, but by lending, the Torah means attachment, to attach ourselves to their plight. They are not alone when they struggle, and that is what is most important, not letting others struggle alone.
Ultimately we see that in our lives as Jews, there is no realm too large or small where G-d cannot fit. Even in dealing with matters of seemingly unspiritual civil law, we find G-d. I invite you to take the opportunity to look for G-d. Look for G-d somewhere you may not have looked before. You might be surprised where G-d can be found.