Torah Tidbits

23 July 2014 / 25 Tammuz 5774
Issue 1033
Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim
February 07, 2013

Lead Tidbit

Mishpatizing Mitzvot

Mishpatim, statutes (as it is often translated), refers to mitzvot of the Torah whose reasons are readily discernable, mitzvot that make common sense, mitzvot that we and many other societies would come up on our own, had we not been commanded.
Since our sedra is called Mishpatim, we would expect many mishpatim- type of mitzvot in it. And, so it is. A few examples - the laws of damages. It is reasonable that a society should hold someone responsible for causing damage to someone else’s person or property. The details might differ from our halacha, but the idea certainly makes sense. Someone borrows something from his fellow, it is reasonable and sensible that the borrower should be held responsible if that which he borrowed does not get returned in good condition. Thieves should be required to make restitution. The should be further penalized and punished. Makes sense. Many societies throughout history have had laws on their books of this kind. Judges shouldn’t be allowed to take bribes. Common sense. People should be kind and helpful to one another. Even to strangers. S’dom was considered wicked because of their anti-social behavior - not because they violated mitzvot.
That’s what mishpatim are all about. Reasonal, logical, common sense rules and regulations.
It should be noted that the halachic details of even the most reasonal mishpat often go beyond the logic; our mishpatim all have elements of requiring something because G-d said so. This is what we would call a CHOK (ch as in Chanuka). As we mention in the Sedra Summary, lending to the poor is a nice thing to do. Not charging too much interest is a proper thing in society. But returning a security for the borrowers use is not necessarily logical - but this is what we are required to do. Our Mishpatim have elements that go above and beyond that which might be a norm for the rest of the world.
But let’s now focus on mitzvot that are CHUKIM for the start. Not that we understand what’s behind it in the first place and then find some details that are harder to explain. Mitzvot that are puzzling, perplexing, not logical… and society would not come upon the requirements of these mitzvot on its own. Not Jewish society, nor any other.
This becomes a workable definition of a CHOK. In many contexts, we talk of mishpatim, in contrast to chukim - of chukim, in contrast to mishpatim.
A CHOK in Parshat Mishpatim stands out. It says, hello - maybe you can fit me into the Mishpatim mode.
This is what various scholars throughout the generations have been trying to do - and not just to mitzvot in Mishpatim. All mitzvot of the Torah - with very few exceptions - have been, and continue to be, the subject of analysis and attempted understanding.
The author of the Sefer HaChinuch, for example, writes that he is attempting to “explain” all mitzvot - not just the easy ones to explain. But he is not doing it for himself. Nor for his generation. They don’t need reasons for mitzvot in order to be motivated to do them. They don’t need reasons to avoid prohibitions.
The younger generation does. The Chinuch’s son and his friends ask questions all the time. And it is for them that he wrote his work - the Sefer HaChinuch.
What we now have is the idea that even Mishpatim shouldn’t need reasons. And even when we think we know why G-d commanded them - we might be missing crucial elements in understanding. But we try for them all - some easier and some harder.
Let’s finish this Lead Tidbit with a classic CHOK found for the first of three times in Parshat Mishpatim: LO T’VASHEIL G’DI BACHALEIV IMO - the prohibition of cooking meat in milk.
Meat is dead! Dead meat. (We cannot take meat from a living animal. Milk - the epitome of Life. Prohibiting the mixing of the two reminds us of the great difference between life and death. Not a reason for Basar b’Chalav, but something to ponder. A handle on this prohibition. Cooking the meat of a young animal in the liquid that is supposed to give it life, is a mockery of G-d’s world. More to ponder. There is even more, but no room…

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