Mishpatim – Rules to live by

This parasha begins the presentation of the civil code with “v-eyleh” meaning “and these”. The link is to the previous sedra and the Ten Commandments, indicating, as R’ Eli Munk wrote, the Divine origin of the law. He wrote that “For justice, we cannot depend on man’s heart, but on the guidance of G-d….This inability of man to know the essence and nature of justice on his own stems from man’s  limited understanding of himself and others.”


After Moshe told the people all the words of G-d and all the laws, the entire people responded “with one voice and they said “all the words that G-d has spoken we will do””. R’ Munk wrote that they made similar statements three times and on the third occasion they added the word “nishma”, meaning “we will obey”. Ramban was quoted as explaining that the third time, they expressed the wish to learn more. Before the third declaration there were sacrifices made to G-d, peace offerings and elevation offerings, and Moshe said “behold the blood of the covenant that G-d sealed with you concerning all these matters”. R’ Munk wrote that this covenant was sullied after forty days with the episode of the golden calf, renewed on the plains of Moab, and confirmed at Mt Gerizim.The third time established the concept of mutual responsibility, with individuals encouraging each other to adhere to the Divine law. In addition they swore they and their descendants would carry out the words of the Torah forever.


The laws have application today, and they have been discussed and clarified in the oral tradition which was written down in the Talmud. The first laws are devoted to safeguarding the human rights of servants and slaves. There are laws regarding assault, manslaughter and murder, compensation for damages, theft, miscarriage, losses from livestock, loans, rents, betrothals, and the treatment of strangers, widows and orphans. Examples of more general laws are “do not accept a false report, do not be a follower of the majority for evil, do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert the law….do not accept a bribe”, and the list continues. There is the injunction to observe the three pilgrimage festivals, and gather to make offerings to G-d. There is the command to worship G-d, indicating that prayer is required.


In return for the observance of all the mitzvoth, G-d promised to be “the enemy of your enemies, and persecute your persecutors”. He would “drive away the Hivvite, the Canaanite and the Hittite” and “set the borders of the land”.


 R’ David Hartman argued that in every generation, each Jew should make a renewal of their covenant with G-d, because Jews could not rely on the deeds of previous generations for a Divine reward (1).


The Living Covenant , R’ David Hartman.

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