Parashat Mishpatim

Friday, February 21, 2020 /26 Shevat, 5780
Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1-24:18

Dear Friends,

In last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Israelites received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. This portion, Mishpatim, is a natural extension of that experience. The portion begins, “These are the rules that you shall set before [the Israelites].” (Exodus 21:1) What follows are 53 commandments broken into two basic categories. First, are laws dealing with interpersonal relationships. From the treatment of slaves to the way in which we welcome the stranger, to the responsibilities we have towards members of our own community. The second category contains laws relating to ritual. These include a discussion about the food we eat, observing a day of rest on Shabbat, celebrating the Three Pilgrimage festivals, and the sacrificial offerings of temple times.

As Midrash Yalchut Shemoni points out, the portion Yitro ends with rules about how one should ascend the holy altar. The rules of mishpatim directly follow the discussion about the holy altar for a reason, “In time to come when there will no longer be an altar, building a just society will be equivalent to bringing sacrifices.”

We similarly build a just society through the ways in which we treat our fellow human beings. The portion discusses in detail the responsibilities we have to people within our community. Touching on subjects such as guarding people from dangerous animals, treating others with respect, returning lost objects and making restitution, the Torah portion is very clear that a just society is one in which everyone is accountable to one another. As the Talmud states, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” (Shavuot 39a)

We also build a just society through the shared rituals in which we partake. The Pilgrimage of Sukkot reminds us of the importance of gratitude for all that we have. Pesach reminds us that we were once strangers, and we have a moral imperative to welcome strangers into our midst. Shavuot reminds us of the importance of lifelong learning, and that we are God’s sacred partners in creating a more perfect world. Rituals around eating and letting the land lay fallow remind us to be cognizant of the impact of our decisions. Shabbat affords us with an opportunity to reflect on our lives.

Whereas the Torah portion Yitro gave us the Ten Commandments, mishpatim gives us guidelines for how to live in partnership with God. Creating sacred relationships and engaging in sacred rituals both have a role in creating a just and caring religious community.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail