Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24.18)
By Rabbi Daniel Klein
A lot can change in a week.
It was only a week ago that the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai – through the thunder, lightning and shofar blasts, experiencing the overwhelming revelation of God’s presence.
And then this week, the parasha opens with God saying to Moshe, “These are the laws you must place before” the Israelites (Exodus 21:1).
Gone are the Divine pyrotechnics. Gone is the mountain that, according to a Midrash, God held over the Israelites heads, threatening them to accept the Torah or be buried beneath the mountain. Gone is God as the old man thundering forth, demanding obedience, a parent decidedly and loudly sure about what their children need and how they should behave.
Instead, we have God gently setting a series of rules and regulations, laws for a just society, before the people.
A midrash picks up on this striking shift in God’s communication, understanding it as a message to Moshe that he must not treat the Israelites as just passive receptacles of information and instruction, who must learn rules and regulations by rote, but rather he must help them to “understand the reason of each thing and its significance” (Rashi on Exodus 21:1).
While the theophany at Sinai demands obedience, the Divine call in Mishpatim invites responsibility. It is God as the parent recognizing that in order to fulfill the parental charge of enabling the child to leave the home, to be independent beings, the parent can’t only command, but must also let go.
To do so, God has to summon a fundamental attribute familiar from the process of creating the world: restraint. In the mythic imagination of the Jewish mystics, before the world existed, there was only God – but God was lonely. God had a longing for relationship, so God engaged in the creative process. To do so, God had to do tzimtzum, contraction, to create space for creation, for the world, for humanity. God had to exercise restraint and not take up all the space God was capable of taking up. In a wonderful irony, this restraint allowed God to have, and to be, so much more.
At Sinai, and really through much of the story of the Exodus, God expands to God’s fullness, which may well have been necessary for the project of creating a people open to the possibility of following God’s ways. However, this mode of communicating is not suitable for sustaining a relationship. It is not possible to be in a +relationship when there is no room for the other.
“I only hope their hearts will remain as responsive, as willing to obey Me, as they were just now,” (Deuteronomy 5:26), God says after the events of Sinai. God recognizes at the beginning of this week’s parasha that if we only leap and do not listen, if we only speak and don’t leave the object of our communication space to respond, no relationship is possible. The people’s receptivity at Sinai will not only be fleeting but irretrievable.
God does not only model this in the form of communication of this parasha but also implicitly legislates it in the content of the parasha. The laws of Mishpatim repeatedly call our attention to the most needy and vulnerable in society: the slave, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the person who has lost control of their property, the person subject to a judge’s decision. The essential conviction at the heart of these laws, says the early medieval commentator Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, is that “a person should not oppress one who has less power.” The understanding of a just society envisaged between and among the dense rules and regulations set forth is that our lives are profoundly shaped by forces beyond our control and that in our everyday actions and the societal structures we establish, we have to take responsibility for creating a just context for ourselves and others.
Of course it takes compassion and empathy to emulate God and to live up the laws of Mishpatim. But just as importantly, we must exercise restraint. We must not do all that we could do so that we make space for others, for relationships, for love, and for a life worth living.
Daniel Klein is a 2010 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, where he serves as Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Life.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.