Skip to content

Parashat Mishpatim 5778 — 02/10/2018

Parashat Mishpatim 5778 — 02/10/2018

Shemot 21:1-24:18

Our parashah contains the first version of the Aseret haDibrot, the “10 Commandments,” or more precisely, the 10 Utterances. (The second is in parashat VaEtchanan in Sefer Devarim / Deuteronomy.) At one point in history the Aseret haDibrot were read at every service in the synagogue, until the Rabbis removed it, as heretics were claiming that this passage was somehow of much greater significance and holiness than the rest of Torah. In fact, we hold that the entire Torah is one structure, the blueprint of creation, and that no part is intrinsically any more significant than any other. What we mean when we say Torah is the blueprint of creation is a story for another day, but I don’t think that the blueprint resides on the level of the meaning of the Torah that was “brought down” to earth by Moshe Rabbeinu. On the level of meaning, the Aseret haDibrot certainly do have great significance, which is why at first they were read every day!

According to Abarbanel, the 10 “Commandments” are really headings for different categories of commandments. For example, the prohibition against adultery certainly prohibits marital infidelity, but it also prohibits the Jewish people from being unfaithful to its “marriage partner,” Gd. Therefore all the prohibitions relating to idolatry fall under the rubric, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

There is a second set of correspondences that we should note here. The first 5 Commandments define the relationship between Gd and human beings. The second set regulates interpersonal relations. And there is a correspondence between them:

• “I am Gd” corresponds to “Thou shalt not murder.” Since human beings are created in the image of Gd, destroying human life is like denying Gd’s existence.
• “Thou shalt have no other gods” corresponds to “Thou shalt not commit adultery” as explained above
• “Thou shalt not take Gd’s Name in vain” corresponds to “Thou shalt not steal.” When we swear falsely with Gd’s Name we “steal” Gd’s Name for our own nefarious purposes (and by dint of the false oath, we may actually be stealing someone’s money)
• “Remember Shabbat” corresponds to “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Shabbat is a witness to the fact that Gd created the world in 6 “days” and that He “rested” on the 7th “day.”
• “Honor your parents” corresponds to “Thou shalt not covet.” Just as our parents give us the DNA, the education and the upbringing to carry out our particular task, so we believe that Gd provides us with the resources we need to carry out that task. What someone else has is what they need to carry out their task, and desiring what they have is simply self-destructive.

According to Abarbanel, the laws set out in our parashah are the kinds of laws that, had they not been given to us, we could have figured out ourselves, because they are necessary for the orderly functioning of society. But I think they have a deeper level as well. For example, the parashah opens with the laws of a Jewish indentured servant. Typically this is a case where somebody has stolen something and was caught and cannot make restitution. He is sold by the court for a period of 6 years, with the proceeds being used to repay the victim. The rules for treating such a servant are so strict that our Sages said, “He who buys a Hebrew servant buys a master.” The “slave” must effectively become not only a member of the family, he is a privileged member of the family. If the master has only one pillow, the “slave” gets it, because the master cannot treat the “slave” worse than he treats himself. At the end of his term, he is given gifts of grain and livestock – seed capital so to speak, so he can re-establish his own household. Everything is done to uphold and enhance the human dignity of the “slave,” so that he can return to society and become productive and self-sufficient. (Click the link above for more details.)

Interestingly, Abarbanel puts the laws of the Hebrew servant under the category “Thou shalt not murder.” Why? R. Kasnett simply states, “If this individual is not treated properly, it is as if the master is, in a sense, murdering him.” What can we learn from this comparison? I think we can learn quite a lot about human relationships in general.

When someone is sold to you as an indentured servant, one generally wants to maximize one’s return on investment, and that means getting as much work as possible out of the person while providing him with the minimum he needs to sustain himself and be productive. In other words, it seems natural to treat the worker as if he were a machine, an inanimate object, or a beast of burden (incidentally, the Torah has rules to prevent mistreatment of animals too). The Torah is telling us that this is an incorrect assessment of the reality.
On one level we know what is wrong with this assessment. Human beings are not machines, nor are they animals. They are not “human resources” to be exploited the way we exploit mineral or water or atmospheric resources. Human beings appear to be unique in their ability to experience the transcendent. To treat a person as an object to be used is like murder because it is denying that person’s essential nature, which is unbounded and eternal, “a piece of the Divine from above,” as our Sages put it. By objectifying a human being we are murdering that person’s soul. The results of this are quite apparent in the world today.

I think we can take this one step further. All of creation is an expression of the transcendent. The same Pure Existence that is at the basis of our own individuality is also at the basis of the individuality of every other human being, and indeed at the basis of the animal world and the inanimate world as well. When we lost sight of this basic fact we act in a way that is damaging to the environment, damaging to others and damaging to ourselves as well. It is almost like we murder everything we look at, for we reduce it from its infinite status to the status of a finite object. Perhaps Torah is telling us that we need to rise to a level of awareness where we recognize both ourselves and everything in our environment as being unbounded in our essential nature, so that we can live in harmony with ourselves and with others and with Gd’s Creation.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Mishpatim

In this parshah, Gd gives many laws: The most important is “And you shall worship the Lrd, your Gd, and He will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from your midst.

How were our ancestors to know that they were worshipping Gd, Totality, and not limited gods?

How are we to know?

To me it seems that what they had to do and what we have to do is create in our awareness some sense of Totality, the Primordial Oneness, within which everything and everyone exists as an impulse, a flow—as ripples are the ocean flowing within itself.

Because this is reality, our sense of Gd in this way is a real taste of Gd, Oneness, and by devoting ourself to this Wholeness through the taste we define our true Nature as this Oneness, we commit ourselves to set this as the Goal of our life, the only way our life can be fulfilled.

Through this commitment, they worshipped and we worship.

We settle for no partial value: We accept nothing less than Totality – Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omni-Joyful, Omni-Loving, Totality, All-in-All, nothing left out.

Through this commitment we worship and through this commitment we grow in appreciating every aspect of life as truly Gd, we grow in our ability to love every detail of life as ourself, we grow in our ability to “love Gd with all our heart and soul.”  We grow in fulfillment, restoring awareness of Oneness within our self and everywhere.

This is a life worth living and the various laws of this parshah, Mishpatim, are aids in living this life and finding that Fulfillment always Is, never is missing, always Is.

Baruch HaShem