Depending on your denominational orientation, the Torah can be seen as God’s love letters to the Jewish people, or B’nei Yisrael’s love letters to God. However, some people historically and pejoratively have interpreted the Torah as something devoid of love, strictly a collection of guidelines devoid of feeling. The argument of law versus love has accompanied the Jewish people, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
The first distinctive word in this week’s parashah, hence its title, is Mishpatim. It can be understood as laws, but it can also mean phrases, like words bound together, statutes, codes (of conduct), ordinances, standards for righteous living. There are 53 Mishpatim in this parsha.
Parshat Mishpatim presents a range of laws for us, but not in any easily discernible order. Therefore, these laws, which some scholars call the Covenant Code, take time to review and understand. Some resemble legal constructs from ancient neighboring societies, such as the Code of Hammurabi, Ur-Nammu, Eshnunna, Hittite, Middle Assyrian, and Sumerian laws. However, Mishpatim is specific to Jewish tradition, with laws related to honoring (One) God, Shabbat, kashrut, Shalosh Regalim (The three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), indentured servants , care and consideration for parents, other humans, livestock, among others.
Snowflakes fall into intricate lace patterns, not always easy to grasp, sometimes dissolving before their details are fully seen. Like snowflakes, these laws are complex and varied. Unlike snowflakes, they are weighted down to earth and kept in sacred text, guiding our lives, even helping us to turn our enemy into a brother or sister.
Geneva philosopher, writer and composer, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) maintained that people were born free. He postulated that they must voluntarily give legitimate authority to the government through social contracts that allow for mutual preservation. According to this view, laws are designed to protect citizens individually and collectively. Five reasons for passing laws have been identified: 1. To protect a person or group from harm. 2. To prevent someone from harming themselves. 3. Promote an individual’s or group’s understanding of morality. 4. Provision of goods and services to individuals or organizations. 5. Protect governments and their leaders from harm.
Contrary to Roussaeu’s claims, B’nai Yisrael remembers wandering the desert on his way to becoming a free people because he was not born free. Instead, freedom was won with the risks and responsibilities of parting with the conditions of slavery. Although leaving Mitzrayim, the land of narrow spaces, was a seminal event Biblically speaking, it was not a singular event. These risks and responsibilities must be activated in every era, revitalizing us and our relationship with something greater than ourselves. In every age we are to “do”…na’aseh ve nishmah…and hear (Ex. 19:8, 24:3, 24:7), or interpret what we are to do according to our time, engaging again to our sacred community. of act. Therefore, the articulation and implementation of Jewish laws established an evolving laboratory of personal and societal ideals where human flourishing and the care of all Creation could establish paradise on earth.
Interestingly, as Rousseau developed his Enlightenment theories, he identified Judaism and its emphasis on compassion and justice as an extremely advanced societal structure, surpassing the detail and effectiveness of his own modern sociopolitical frameworks.
Love letters have power and significance. They can change hearts and minds. They can improve the circumstances. Whether we are oriented towards the love of peoples for God or the love of God for people, the laws transmitted by the Torah, preserved in sentences, continue to provide us with models for the refinement of self and society. As we engage these Mishpatim, may we deeply understand that the work does not end with words on a page. What matters is what we do with it, even if it means making adaptations for the good of all. Moreover, these laws stem from an expansive and tenacious love that allows Judaism to be an interpretive tradition. Here, love and law unite. They are the basis as well as the fuel to allow us to move forward and dare to do better. jn
Rabbi Mindie Snyder is the rabbi and chaplain of Sun Health Communities.