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Parashat Mishpatim 5772 – 02/15/2012

Parashat Mishpatim

Submitted by
Robert Rabinoff

Then his master shall bring him to the Elohim … (21:6)

But in my opinion Scripture says then his master shall bring him to the Elohim, and to the Elohim shall come both their claims to allude to the fact that Gd is with [the judges] in matters of judgment; it is He Who declares the accused vindicated and it is He Who declares him guilty… (Ramban ad loc)

According to Ramban then, going to court is not called going to Elohim because the judges act on Gd’s behalf, but because one who goes to court is actually going before Gd, and is in essence judged by Him.  (Artscroll’s notes to Ramban ad loc)

The judge who judges justly is a partner with Gd in the Creation of the world (Shabbat 10a)

When a Sofer writes a Sefer Torah, there are numerous occasions where one writes one of Gd’s Names, and when he does, he must have the specific intent that he is writing a Holy Name, or the Sefer Torah is invalidated.  There are a number of places in Torah where a word that is often used to refer to Gd actually refers to something else.  For example, the word elohim can be used in the phrase elohim acheirim which refers to idols, and is most definitely not holy.  In the case of our verse, where the Hebrew servant’s master brings him to elohim, the word refers to the Rabbinical Court (beit din), and as such is also not holy, and does not have to be written with the same intent as when that word refers to Gd.  The question remains, why is a Name of Gd used to refer to a beit din?


The function of any court system is to resolve disputes, be they disputes between individuals (civil law) or disputes, as it were, between an individual and the norms of the society as a whole (criminal law).  These disputes represent disorder in the social system and this disorder is a kind of friction that prevents the system from functioning smoothly and growing to higher levels of structure.  Friction, as we know, slows things down.  Brakes operate by creating friction, and this friction converts kinetic energy – that is, dynamic motion – into heat which is simply exhausted into the environment.  Friction also degrades the integrity of the parts of the system that are involved, further damaging the system’s progress.  Finally, friction, by creating waste heat, increases the entropy, or disorder, in the universe (this is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics).


The process of creation is the exact opposite of friction.  Creation, on the human level, is the act of forming an interrelationship between otherwise disparate parts of a system, with the result that a more complex and rich structure is created, one that can often perform in novel ways.  Sometimes the creative act is simply seeing an order or an interrelationship that is already there, but which has, up till that time, passed unnoticed.  A stunning example of this kind of creativity is Picasso’s Bull’s Head – a “sculpture” where the “head” is a bicycle seat (point down) and the “horns” are the bicycle’s handlebars (if you’ve never seen it, here’s a gallery:


On the level of the Divine, of course, there is no disorder, so creation cannot be a process of making order out of chaos (in the modern English sense of the word chaos).  Rather, the process of creation is perhaps better described as the undifferentiated, unmanifest basis of the universe differentiating itself, and then those differentiated aspects arranging themselves into ever more complex structures.  The ultimate level of integration occurs when the entire manifest universe is perfectly orderly and is integrated back with its unmanifest basis into a grand level of wholeness that would have been impossible had the process of differentiation not taken place. 


Our Sages describe this goal of creation as the whole world recognizing Gd.  That is, Gd, in His essence, is absolute, unified, unmanifest.  He creates from within Himself (there is nothing “outside” of Gd!) and directs the growth of all parts of His creation.  The only apparent exception to this Divine direction is human beings.  Human beings have free will, which they can align with Gd’s Will or not.  When the individual ego takes over, the individual’s will is substituted for Gd’s Will, and the result is often friction.  Sometimes this is friction between the individual and the environment, which we may experience as, for example, bad health.  Oftentimes however, the friction is interpersonal, and it is in these cases where the court system must step in and alleviate the friction.


Now we can understand the cosmic significance that the Sages of our tradition assigned to the rôle of the dayan (judge) in a beit din, and why the Name of Gd is appropriated for the dayanim.  The purpose of the beit din is nothing less than to set Creation back on its proper path of growth and evolution.  Whether a dispute is over a few dollars or over billions, whether it’s a traffic ticket or a serious criminal offense, in some way all of creation has gotten off track and it is the job of the beit din to get it back on track.  Thus our Sages liken the dayan who rules justly – in accordance with the law, which is, after all, Gd’s law, the instructions for the frictionless running of society – to a partner with Gd in the Creation.  And it is why Ramban can say that the litigants before beit din are actually being judged by Gd, Elokim (the holy version), Himself.  The beit din and the dayanim are Gd’s mechanism for bringing the creation to perfection.  It is not simply that the beit din, when it rules justly, is doing Gd’s bidding, it is much more profound than that – they are actually an instrument in Gd’s Hand, the mechanism by which Gd brings the Creation to fulfillment.


Most of us will never sit on a beit din of course, but we do act in the rôle of a judge in many, many contexts.  Perhaps the most important context is when we judge ourselves.  We make choices every waking moment, and we need to establish a judge over ourselves to make sure that our choices are not skewed by the various forms of “bribery” that the material world presents to our senses and our bodies.  When we judge ourselves justly, when we put our own little wills and desires in tune with Gd’s Will and with His Desires for us and for His whole creation, then each one of us can become a partner in creating an ideal world where indeed they will not say to one another “Know Gd” for they will all know Gd (Jeremiah 31:44).