Monday, January 28, 2008

Parshat Mishpatim 2

Our Torah reading opens with the words “And these are the judgements that you shall place before them”. Rashi comments: Wherever it says ‘These’ in the Torah it rejects that which has been stated previously. Wherever it says ‘And these’ it adds to that which has been stated previously. Just as those which have been stated previously, [the Ten Commandments] are from Sinai, so too, these commandments are from Sinai.

Why does Rashi need to tell us that the laws contained in this portion were also given at Sinai? Surely the entirety of the Torah was given by G-d to Moshe at Sinai, why does Rashi single out this section?

‘Mishpatim’, the name of the portion, also describes the laws contained in it. There is almost no narrative, only a seemingly haphazard collection of laws. However most of those laws are logical, and clearly understandable as necessary precepts for the functioning of a just society. All the Mitzvoth in the Torah can be divided into two main groups, the Chukim (statutes) and the Mishpatim (laws). Chukim are rules for which we see no apparent logical reason, for example Shatnez, the prohibition on mixing wool and linen in garments. Mishpatim are laws that would probably have been formulated, even without the Torah, for society to function smoothly.

Therefore Rashi comes to tell us that the laws in this section are not merely the result of societal norms, but are also Divine in origin. There is no qualitative difference between the laws of Kashrut or Shabbat, and those of theft or damages.

Why was it necessary for G-d to give us laws that we would have been able to formulate for ourselves even without the Torah? As the Talmud (Eruvin 100b) states: Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘If the Torah had not been given we would have learnt modesty from a cat, [the prohibition of] theft from an ant, sexual prohibitions from a dove and laws of marital relations from a chicken’. Why did G-d deem it necessary to write these laws which we could have discovered for ourselves?

The Mishna (Makkos 3; 16) says: Rabbi Chanania ben Akashya says ‘G-d wanted to give merit to Israel, therefore He increased for them Torah and Mitzvoth, as it says (Yishayah 42; 21) “G-d desired for the sake of His righteousness to magnify the Torah and make it glorious”. Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna explains: It is amongst the foundations of faith that when a person observes one of the 613 commandments properly, and does not have any intention other than to fulfil it out of love for the Creator… behold they will merit through it eternal life in the world to come. About this Rabbi Chanania said that because there are so many Mitzvoth it is impossible that a person will not perform at least one of them in their lifetime with the proper intention, and through that performance will gain eternal life.

By giving us a combination of logical laws and commandments which are beyond our comprehension, G-d ensured that we would be able to fulfil at least some of them properly, and thus earn our eternal reward.

However it is important to bear in mind that the reason that some laws seem to make more sense to us than others is because G-d created us with a finite degree of logic. The definition of some laws as Mishpatim and some as Chukim is almost arbitrary. All of the Torah is G-d’s plan for the universe, and the observance of the laws facilitates the proper functioning of the world.

However, had it all been logical it would have been difficult to keep the laws purely because G-d so instructed us. Had none of it been comprehensible to us we would have not understood that there is a purpose in the universe. By creating us with imperfect understanding, G-d has given us the opportunity to keep part of the Torah because we understand it, and part of it out of pure love for G-d with no ulterior motive.

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