Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Mishpatim

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Morality and Human Nature

By Michael Chessen

The portion of Mishpatim marks a turning point in the Torah's textual progression. The entire book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus consisted entirely of a narrative without providing us with any explicit commandments to follow. The exodus from Egypt ushered in a number of commandments which dealt primarily with observance of the festival of Passover, and Yitro introduced the famous Ten Commandments. It is only in the portion of Mishpatim, however, that we begin the erudition of the detailed commandments in earnest.

Now after all that God has done for us: making us a nation, promising us the Land of Israel, liberating us from Egyptian bondage, and choosing us to receive his precious Torah, we might expect that God's first demands of us would involve His praise and worship. Whereas a number of Mishpatim's many commandments are indeed worship oriented, the lion's share of the portion's commandments actually concern themselves with morality and ethical justice.

This leads us to ask why we need a divine edict to ensure that people get along with one another. After all, the ancient Greeks developed a simple premise. This being, that individuals would naturally treat one another justly in order to receive just treatment themselves. A basic shortcoming here was that there was no basic principle which ensured that stronger groups could not team up and persecute or even annihilate weaker groups on the basis of race or beliefs. The Torah, for its part, established in the opening account of creation that Adam, from whom all of humankind emerged, was created in the image of God. Therefore, if one murdered or even in any way intentionally sought to damage a human being, one would be desecrating holiness.

We may be able to envision a skeptic acknowledging that while this concept makes for pleasant enough theology, Mishpatim and all of our ensuing portions cannot practically utilize this in order to "legislate" morality. At Mt. Sinai the people of Israel proclaimed that "we will do and we will learn": the fulfillment of the commandments is no passive endeavor, but demands active faith, in both word and deed. In the midst of Mishpatim we come across the commandment to return a stray animal to its rightful owner.

This seemingly unremarkable commandment merits repetition near the Torah's end with a most significant rejoinder, "You will not be able to ignore it"(Deuteronomy 22). This second statement is not merely reinforcing the commandment by adding a prohibition against its non-fulfillment. Rather, "you will not be able" is a prediction, that after having studied and fulfilled all of the commandments to the best of your abilities, they will have become such an intrinsic part of your basic nature that you will find yourself incapable of acting in any manner other than according to God's moral precepts.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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