Mishpatim 5784

The Ten Commandments is perhaps the most famous chapter in the Torah. It is the cornerstone of Jewish and Christian traditions, forming the central ethical core of our civilisation. We read the Ten Commandments three times in the year. Twice on Shabbat (during parshat Yitro, recited last week, and parshat Vaetchanan) as well as on Shavuot

There is a strong connection between the Ten Commandments and this week’s parsha, Mishpatim. But before we explore this connection, there is a question that has been asked of me often over the years related to our parsha that needs clarification. This question is important for us as it allows us to see the connection between revelation and law which is a core concern of our tradition. If the Ten Commandments embody the central ethical principles of our religion, why do we only read them three times a year? In many Progressive congregations, including our own, we ask our bnei mitzvah students to read the Ten Commandments during our regular Torah service, although it is not part of the Shabbat or weekday service.

During the Second Temple period and early in the Mishnaic period, the Ten Commandments were recited daily. However, many Rabbinic authorities believed that focusing on them regularly would minimise the importance of other commandments also articulated in the Torah. A cornerstone of Rabbinic Judaism is the insistence that all the commandments are equally important. We can definitely question whether or not the observance of the Sabbath or the laws of kashruth are as important as the commandment not to murder, but many of the Rabbis believed and continue to believe just that.

Parshat Mishpatim (Laws) occurs immediately after the revelation at Sinai. It is overshadowed by the drama at the foot of the mountain but is an important and necessary sequel to the Ten Commandments. Some of the areas of law that Mishpatim deals with include the treatment of slaves and indentured servants, damages, loans and return of lost property. It also deals with the laws and observance of the Sabbath, Sabbatical year and the Festival cycle. The two main areas of law mentioned in Mishpatim serve as a basis for the Rabbinic legal categories of Ben Adam L’Makom, laws dealing with the relationship between Jews and God, and Ben Adam L’ Havero, laws dealing with the relationship between people. In Rabbinic law, all of the Commandments are contained within these two legal categories. However, the law in our tradition does not exist solely to regulate the behaviour of individuals and groups within society. It exists to sanctify our relationships with each other and all creation. In doing so, we also allow a place for the Divine to dwell among us, thus sanctifying our relationship with God.

Parshat Mishpatim serves to remind us that while the ecstatic experience on Mt Sinai can inspire us to cleave to the Divine Source of all Life, we still need structure and a body of law to help us translate that experience into action as we navigate our relationships with each other, the planet and the Divine in the market place of life. That is why the collective spiritual-mystical encounter at Sinai (parshat Yitro) cannot be manifested, translated and applied to the construction of an ethical society unless it is connected to a body of law as expressed in parshat Mishpatim.  

Rabbi George Mordecai

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *