This parasha is very different from the previous five, as it has very little narrative. Instead it contains a whole series of laws on a wide range of issues, including those relating to the damages (fines) to be paid if an offence is committed. It ends very differently with Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Two Tablets and the Torah. He remains there forty days and forty nights.
Daniel Goldfarb, a native of Boston, made aliya in 1976. He left the practice of law in 2000 to become director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and he leaves Israel in late December to share the warmth of Talmud Torah with friends, old and new, in cold, rainy England.
Parshat Mishpatim is the third stage in a remarkable process of tsimtsum, contraction. Two weeks ago in B'shallach we read of the miraculous escape of the children of Israel at the Sea of Reeds, which God parted so they could cross on dry land and then brought back upon the Egyptian army, drowning them. It was a world-shaking event, "the nations heard and trembled" (Ex 15:14). Last week those children of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai in a dramatically-staged moment of Divine revelation; they heard God's voice, not the whole world.
Our Parsha, Mishpatim, brings revelation "down to earth," in more ways than one. The Ten Commandments given at Sinai are now spelled out in a detailed series of mitsvot, 53 this week alone, covering the gamut of Jewish law – the rights of persons, offences against property, moral offenses, religious decrees. The Torah touches all areas of our lives. V'elu hamishpatim, "And these are the rules..," the parsha opens. The letter vav in the first word, "And," intrigued the classical commenters – just as the Ten Commandments last week were given by God at Sinai, so were the laws given here. Judaism does not remain in the clouds and on the mountaintops. The way we treat indentured servants and deal with damage caused by our animals is of divine concern as well. The focus narrows even further next week, the end of this process, in Parshat Trumah, where God instructs the Israelites to "build Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell amongst you" (Ex 25:8). We have gone from the macro to the micro, from transcendent to imminent, and God is immediately present at both ends, in the sublime and in the details.
Coincidentally this Shabbat is also Parshat Sh'kalim, the first of the special Shabbats prior to Purim and Pesach where we have a Maftir portion from the Torah and Haftarah from the prophets, unrelated to the Parsha. The Sh'kalim reading (Ex 30:11-16) instructs the people to pay a half-shekel tax per person, to fund the sockets of the foundation of the Tabernacle and the daily sacrifices. "The rich shall not pay more nor the poor pay less." Within the community worthy of God's presence are embedded several profound principles – at the most basic level, the foundation and the daily routine, all take responsibility and to the same degree. And half a shekel, not full or complete – only people aware of their shortcomings and limitations, individually and collectively, can make room for God to dwell amongst them. And they can make the shekel, and indeed the Tabernacle, complete only by joining together.
It is at the end of Parshat Mishpatim that the children of Israel accept the Torah officially, na'aseh v'nishma, "we shall do and we shall hear/obey" (Ex 24:7). They have seen God revealed at Mount Sinai, a moment more dramatic than any vision the prophets would ever have, the rabbis say. And they have received a codex of 613 commandments encompassing their lives everywhere, 24/7. They are now ready to establish the holy sanctuary and share its burdens, day after day, on the basis of humility, equality and cooperation, which would make it a fitting place indeed for God's presence to dwell within. Shabbat shalom.
Juliet Landau-Pope teaches social science at the Open University and runs workshops on overcoming procrastination. She is also a certified coach and professional declutterer.
Mishpatim lists a broad range of ordinances including rules relating to liability for taking care of other people’s animals, also understood as applying to property. The portion identifies four different types of custodian (shomrim): an unpaid guardian; a paid guardian; a borrower; and a renter. For each category there are guidelines concerning what happens if goods are damaged. The unpaid guardian is the only one not obliged to pay compensation, perhaps – I’m guessing here - because s/he was doing the owner a favour in the first place.
What relevance might this have today? Is there anything in your home that belongs to someone else? Maybe you’re storing boxes on behalf of a relative who has moved abroad; or looking after books and records for your adult children who don’t have space in their own place. Or perhaps you have taken on the role of family archivist, keeping papers and photos that others have left in your safekeeping. Are you happy and willing to be an unpaid guardian or are you paying a price in terms of the impact of clutter? On a more philosophical note, custodianship also extends beyond material possessions. What beliefs, stories and traditions do we hold onto out of deference to others and what are the limits of our liability when these are threatened?
Other Divrei Torah on Mishpatim
- 5766 (Jonah Steinberg)
- 5766 (Taste of Limmud Team)
- 5767 (Mike Hollander)
- 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
- 5768 (Rachel Keren)
- 5768 (Emma Rozenberg)
- 5769 (Jonah Steinberg)
- 5769 (David Stern)
- 5770 (Elliott Malamet)
- 5770 (David Aaronson)
- 5771 (Roni Tabick)
- 5771 (Taste of Limmud Team)
- 5772 (Haim Shalom)
- 5774 (Karen Radkowsky)
- 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)
- 5775 (Shelley Marsh)
- 5775 (Ellen Flax)