Parashat Mishpatim

Everything I Need, I Learned at Sinai
By Irwin Huberman

During the mid-1980’s a series of books captured the imagination of readers across America under the general theme of “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

The book’s premise was that this complex and often troubling world could somehow be tamed and explained through a series of general themes that we originally learned during a pure and relatively uncomplicated time in our lives.

Of course, in spite of this popular series of books and articles which also claimed that everything we needed to know could be gleaned from our cat, dog or reruns of Bonanza or The Nanny, in reality, the world which God created is complex, often troubling, and beyond the reach of general explanations and classifications.

We as humans possess a tendency to seek absolutes and firm directions to understand life, but indeed, Judaism through its system of debate, discussion and discourse encourages us to reach beyond general or fixed solutions.

During the reading of last week’s parashah (weekly portion), Parashat Yitro, we witnessed an awesome display of thunder and lightening, as the children of Israel received the Ten Commandments (Decalogue) at Mount Sinai.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, provides the fuel to take the Ten Commandments to a higher level. No fewer than 51 mitzvot (commandments) are contained in the parashah, covering mishpatim (rules) which include how we ritually serve God, what we eat, how we treat servants, what happens when we cause someone injury or death, observing the Sabbath and sacrificial festivals, property law, loans, pledges, charity, truth, and justice.

In ancient times, the Ten Commandments were recited with the recitation of Shema Yisrael, but this practice was discontinued according to the Talmud (Berakhot 12a) for fear that those with little knowledge or with ulterior religious motives would focus solely on the Ten Commandments and discount the importance of laws, ordinances and obligations contained within the entire Torah.

Our tradition maintains that the Ten Commandments serve as a basis for the rest of the mitzvot, and a number of works such as that of Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) grouped the commandments according to their links with the Decalogue.

However, our tradition also stresses that each of the 613 mitzvot is of equal importance. Who is to say which commandment, when practiced, will not lead to another positive action? Who is to say how our actions, or inaction, will have a beneficial or negative effect on others?

Pirkei Avot, the collection of sayings from our sages assembled in the Mishnah (the recorded oral Torah) 1,800 years ago reminds us:

Run after the most minor mitzvah as you would after the most important and flee from transgression, because doing one mitzvah draws you into doing another.

The Ten Commandments continue to serve as one of the most important legal codes within our civilization, influencing not only Judaism, but also Christianity, Islam and secular society.

But our tradition also encourages us to adopt a “bias for action,” that is, through reflection, discussion and study to take these general commandments, expand on them, and incorporate them within the complexities of our lives.

This is the important underscore of Parashat Mishpatim, as the children of Israel accept the Torah with the words, “Na’aseh V’Nishma. All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do and hear.” (Exodus 24:7). These words form the basis of Israel’s unconditional and everlasting Covenant with God.

As the Torah unfolds in the weekly portions to follow, we will be inspired by commandments regarding compassion, loving-kindness, charity, fairness and our obligations as Jews and as human beings. These cornerstone principles emanate from the Ten Commandments.

However, the Ten Commandments do not stand alone. Indeed, everything we need to know we learned at Sinai, but as the Torah also teaches, lo ba-shamyim hi (Deut. 30:12), “the Torah is not found in the heavens,” but rather in the mishpatim, which illuminate the pathways and details of our lives.

Irwin Huberman is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.