Mishpatim, A Torah Portion for the Everyday World


Rabbi Alyson Solomon, Interim Rabbi

Adapted from a drash given on February 21, 2020.

Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this year during the week of February 16-22, is positioned powerfully in the Torah. Found in the second book, Exodus, chapters 21-24, it is the 18th of the 54 weekly parshiot.

The previous week, in Parshat Yitro, we all stand at Mount Sinai, an enormous troop of recently enslaved people. We are given a sacred and fundamental structure for becoming not only a people, but also self-governing. With the words of the ten utterances or Ten Commandments, we become aligned and banded together by an ethical framework as a free people. Yitro, Moses’ father in law, supports him to set up a leadership structure so that Moses does not wear himself out (a good idea for all of us to remember). Amidst thunder, lightning and shofarot blasting, we receive the Ten Commandments.
The following week, in Parshat Trumah, Moses receives Gd’s blueprints for the mishkan, the tabernacle, our first temple. As if Moses and Gd are publishing for Architectural Digest, Parshat Trumah goes into opulent detail regarding the use of gold and silver, dolphin skins, and lapis lazuli, all so that Gd may dwell among us. Exodus 25:8 reads:

בְּתוֹכָם. ח וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי,

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.
Down to the cubit we begin to dream of not only our arrival into a Holy Land, but also the building of what will eventually be our magnum opus, the mikdash (the Holy Temple in Jerusalem).

In Mishpatim, we find ourselves between a mountain and the mishkan, our portable mini-temple, between the natural awe of Mt Sinai – Gd’s charge for oneness and ethical living – and next week’s architectural feasibility meeting on the materials and metrics of our planned, earthly home for Gd. In light of these two topics – Sinai and the Ten Commandments on one side, and our temple prototype on the other — how do we understand the location and purpose of Parshat Mishpatim?

I understand Parshat Mishpatim, as a critical opportunity to integrate Sinai into our everyday lives, to teach us how Sinai can guide our interactions with each other, even miles from or millennia after we were all at the mountain together. As a people woven together by narrative, Parshat Mishpatim is our first opportunity to integrate the thunder and lightning of Sinai into our day-to-day lives. Here’s how.

In Parshat Mishpatim we are given a list of several dozen more laws — or sacred charges: civil, ethical, criminal law, ritual and spiritual. Mishpatim literally means rules, laws or judgments, and is often contrasted with hukkim, from the Hebrew root meaning to engrave or inscribe. Hukkim are decrees or legal fictions or ways that are often somewhat unclear in their rational. Classic hukkim include the rite of the red heifer where the ashes of a sacrificed young cow are used to purify a person who has come into contact with a corpse, the prohibition against shaving the corners of one’s head or beard, and shatnes, the prohibition against mixing linen and wool. Mishpatim are considered clearer, more concrete and explainable laws.

Parshat Mishpatim includes four entire chapters of rules, a massive list, especially relative to last week’s laconic ten. Here is a sampling of the mishpatim we receive:

– Firstly, and profoundly considering we are coming out of slavery, we learn that if we acquire a Hebrew slave, in the seventh year we must let our slave go free, without payment.
– We must not subvert the rights of our needy in their disputes.
– We must not bring death upon those who are innocent and in the right.
– If we see the donkey of our enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, we must raise it with them.
– If there is an ox that has habits of goring people, and his owner was warned, and failed to guard it, the ox should be stoned and killed with its owner.
– We should not tolerate sorcery or charge people interest on loans.

We live in the everyday realities spoken of in this week’s parsha. In many ways I believe this Torah portion to be the most important of all our parshiot, our Jewish contribution to global civil society. We learn how to be sacred in the everyday. These mishpatim, these rules and laws, help us function in the most concrete ways – how to treat people and animals, keep a calendar, and ultimately try to bring Gd into the everyday details of life.

The Ten Commandments are Gd’s shorthand list for how we are to imitate Gd, or live in the ideal way. The description of the temple is Gd’s dream home and blueprint to funnel all our precious resources towards community. In between Sinai and the mishkan, we have reality, the details of daily life that help us bring Gd, holiness, and civility into our everyday relationships and reality.

The parsha begins, …לִפְנֵיהֶם.א וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, “… — and — these are the rules that you shall set before them.” (Ex 21:1). While our covenant began on a mountaintop, its implications reach our streets, our farms, our families and how we count time to mark meaning in our lives. These laws are not simply a list of laws, but the continuation of a liberation narrative, reminding us of the experience of being the outsider, setting limits on servitude.

The tiny little “v” that vav, just a single letter in the Hebrew, didn’t have to be there, but it is. It serves to remind us that our structures — civil, ritual, spiritual — are all part of the whole.

From civil and criminal law, this Torah portion then glides to the centrality of the Sabbath: rest for the land, rest for the people and creatures dependent on the land, and then into the ritual offerings of our festivals. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition that they are presented together.

And then, just before the close of this reading, after a hint at what will become foundational to our laws of kashrut, sacred eating, “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” we read, Exodus 23:20:

כ הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ, לְפָנֶיךָ, לִשְׁמָרְךָ, בַּדָּרֶךְ; וְלַהֲבִיאֲךָ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הֲכִנֹתִי. אֲשֶׁר

Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee by the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared.

This parsha, so rooted in the practical and the earthly, leaves us in the realm of mystery and sacred accompaniment. We are not alone in our becoming free. It is a daily process and project and we need both mishpatim and malachim, laws and angels. We receive laws of civility towards our neighbors and our animals, laws of humility and rules that require fairness, justice, kindness, and stewardship of one another. And we are also reminded that we are accompanied by angels, malachim, who are here to support our becoming more just, more kind, more accountable to the earth and each other.