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Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

“Do not oppress a stranger, as you know the soul of a stranger,
because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. “ (Exodus 23:9)

Parashat Mishpatim follows the “Big Ten” (commandments, not football colleges) with a list of 52 additional mitzvot, or commandments. Most commentators view this list as a continuation of the revelation on Mt. Sinai, because the opening verse of the parasha, or portion, “And these are the judgments you shall set before them.” (Ex. 21:1) uses the word “and” to link the two sets of laws. In fact, the mitzvot in Mishpatim comprise the major core of civil and criminal laws that serve as the foundation of halacha, or Jewish religious law. But even though Jewish thought acknowledges the entire Torah as given at Sinai, it still distinguishes between the written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the oral Torah (the rulings of the rabbis over time).

Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–94; outspoken Israeli intellectual) teaches the oral Torah is not merely the extension, explanation, or interpretation of the written Torah. Rather, it is an autonomous body of law with its own rationales. Significantly, the oral Torah, not the literal meaning of the written verse, is the source of authority for Jewish ritual and ethical life. Leibowitz cites Rabbi Eliyahu Kremer, the Gaon of Vilna (1720 – 1797; one of the most influential Rabbinic authorities since the Middle Ages) who compares the oral Torah to a seal, which at first appears reversed, but is readable when pressed into clay. The oral Torah may appear to contradict the written Torah, initially, but upon closer examination, is “halacha to Moses from Sinai.”

Leibowitz concludes God reveals the Torah as a gift for us to use as we see fit. We study the Torah not to uncover what it means to God, but to understand what it means to us.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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