“And these are the rules you shall set before them [i.e., the Israelites]” (Ex. 21:1)
According to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), the “and” connects these civil laws (between human beings) in Mishpatim, to the Ten Commandments (between human beings and God), in Yitro, the parsha/Torah portion which preceded, and both categories of mitzvah are equally holy. What is significant is that the laws in this parsha, Mishpatim, deal exclusively with civil matters—property rights, indentured servitude, working animals, road construction, etc. How can we find holiness in these mundane matters?
The answer is that there cannot be local or world peace without paying attention, not only to our relationship with God, but also with our fellow human beings. One cannot pray three times a day to God, keep kosher, and keep Shabbat, and then go out and cheat one’s fellows in business. An upright, righteous person cannot shut one’s door to a deserving stranger; consider the example of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, whose favorite mitzvah/commandment was that of Hachnasat Orchim, Welcoming Guests. R’ Yehuda Leib teaches that it is of higher merit to repair and maintain one’s relationships with humanity than with God.
Why so? Because God forgives humankind their shotcomings, while people in our nation and world, sadly, often dislike, even hate one another, usually because of jealousy, suspicion, and ignorance. This is why this parsha, Mishpatim, with its down-to-earth civil laws, has to follow Yitro, with its emphasis on otherworldly Sinai.
Sinai was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: it featured thunder and lightning, God and angels on a mountaintop, and a Torah gifted from heaven. It was wondrous and beautiful, but hardly practical on a day-to-day basis. To be a good and proper Jew, we must have a down-to-earth religion, which we can practice in the real, everyday world, where our Torah can offer guidance. Are you tempted to steal in your business, cheat your workers, write down a false number on your balance sheet? Look into your Torah for divine and practical guidance, and you will not sin.
These laws of Mishpatim may have grown old, some of them—we no longer practice slavery, thank God, and the oxen of old have been replaced by machines—but the principles behind them still apply. If we deal honestly and justly with our fellow human beings, it does not matter if we are humble citizens or occupy the highest office in the land. Do mitzvote, give Tzedakah, Charity, and strive for Tikkun Olam, Improving the World. Finally, at the End of Days, there will be a Judge and a Judgment, and He will, one day, call us before the Highest Court there is.
Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.
Green, Arthur (trans. & ed.). The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger. Phila., PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1998.