“Do not side with the majority to do wrong and do not yield to the mighty to pervert the law.” (Exodus 23:2)
If Parashat Yitro is the awe-inspiring and aspirational keynote address, Parashat Mishpatim is the practical application workshop that follows. The revelation at Mt. Sinai is followed by a much-longer set of laws defining personal responsibility and monetary damages. The rabbis conclude from this juxtaposition a person who wishes to be truly pious must be scrupulously honest in civil matters (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 30a). The implication is k’dusha, or sanctity, is not restricted to religious ritual or theological dogma. Rather, it extends into every domain of life.
Nachmanides (1194 – 1270; 13th century Spanish commentator) sees the laws of Mishpatim as an extension of the tenth commandment (Do not covet). Defining the ownership rights of others is a prerequisite to identifying what it is you may not covet. So Mishpatim begins by defining the boundaries of slavery (think: human ownership) because of its special resonance for the Israelites. When a slave is eligible for freedom, but refuses to leave, Mishpatim declares, “Then his master shall bring him to Elohim… (Ex. 21:6) Elohim is one of God’s names, but in this context, it is always translated as the court. Courts become centers of k’dusha. That is why Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) claims those who judge a case justly (the court) become God’s partner in creation.
The Biblical judicial system is created not merely to resolve disputes, but to establish justice. Justice, in turn, will bring redemption (Isaiah 1:27). Parashat Mishpatim is clear: pursuing justice is a sacred act, in any time and in any place.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom