parsha of the week

Point behind Mishpatim’s random list of mitzvot


According to the Sefer HaChinukh, there are 53 mitzvot in Parshat Mishpatim. Other than in similarly mitzvah-laden parshas (such as Re’eh, Shoftim, Ki Tetze, and possibly Kedoshim) it is hard to find a more random list of mitzvot that are not overall thematically connected.

Considering the opening verse of the parsha, “And these are the laws you shall place before them” (21:1), one wonders when Moshe told these laws to the people, on the one hand, and when they were told to him, on the other.

Ibn Ezra is of the opinion that Moshe’s father-in-law’s visit, as recorded in last week’s parsha, actually took place well after the giving of the Torah, even several months later after the Mishkan was built. As proof, he notes that Moshe had a court system set up (albeit a primitive one of one man), that Moshe’s tent was “lifnei haElokim” (before G-d), which meant next to the Mishkan, and that Torah law was the arena in which Moshe was presiding.

So how are we to understand the placement of the laws of Parshat Mishpatim? The end of the parsha, chapter 24, describes Moshe going up the mountain to be there for 40 days. The chronology is extremely difficult to grasp, especially since at the beginning of the parsha Moshe seems to not be on a mountain, and the verse does not even clarify who is speaking. We assume G-d is speaking to Moshe, but actually the text is vague.

We have laws here that relate to owning servants or slaves (depending on how the word “eved” is translated and understood), murder, kidnapping, destroying someone else’s field with fire, bestiality, and Shmittah. None of these seem relevant to their lives in the wilderness. And they don’t yet live in Israel, which will come with a set of mitzvot dependent on living in the land.

There is a popular debate between Rashi and Ramban as to the order of the Torah’s narrative. Ramban is of the opinion that the Torah is presented chronologically, while Rashi is of the view that it is not — “Ein Mukdam U’m’uchar BaTorah.” For many years I preferred the view of Ramban, but as I study more and more, I am convinced that Rashi’s contention is correct. There are too many holes in Ramban’s approach and perspective that make it impossible to accept that the Torah as presented chronologically every time.

So what are to take from the random assignment of mitzvot?

I think there are grounds to suggest that even insofar as the Torah’s narrative goes there was room for free will to have the history of the Israelites be different from how it turned out. In other words, had they not made and worshiped the Golden Calf (in whatever form they worshiped), things would have turned out differently. If the spies had reported directly to Moshe in parshat Shlach, history would have been different as well.

Parshat Mishpatim demonstrates a healthy optimism that certain laws associated with living in a diverse cultural environment — in which, for example, the Torah’s law is the rule of law, but Jew and non-Jew alike accept the Israelite authority in the living of the land — was not too far away in the immediate future. They truly thought they’d be in the land soon, and needed to live with each other and with whichever non-Israelites might remain in the land, who needed to be contended with in a societal manner, under the rule of law.

We don’t expect the Torah-community of the Jewish people to be thieves, murderers, etc., but we recognize the possibility that people are flawed and can commit terrible crimes, or have normal monetary disputes which need to be adjudicated.

Just before writing this thought, I heard the news of the murder of Itamar ben Gal in Israel, and saw the security video of the cowardly, senseless attack. While the non-Jews who accept the authority of the State of Israel’s laws are welcome to live there, within the law there must be a way to eradicate the cancer of terrorism that plagues the minds of those who will randomly kill a lone figure standing innocently at a bus stop. If there isn’t enough deterrence, which is what the Torah law is supposed to create, then the ordered society the Torah aims to create can never be fully actualized.