Home > Divrei Torah > Mishpatim


March 23, 2006

Law and Order by the Numbers
By Peggy de Prophetis

This parashah begins with God’s words to Moses, ‘These are
the rules that you shall set before them.’ It continues with a long and
detailed list of the mitzvot that the Israelites are commanded
to follow. These include statements concerning slavery, murder,
kidnapping, cursing, damages, the poor, judges, witnesses, observance
of Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and the festivals. It ends with Moses
gathering the people at Mount Sinai and the Israelites saying, ‘All the
things that the Lord has commanded, we will do.’ (Ex. 24:3)

In the Talmud (Mak. 23b), a fourth century rabbi, Rabbi Simlai, numbered the mitzvot at 613’248 positive mitzvot (mitzvot aseh) and 365 negative mitzvot (mitzvot lo ta aseh).
The number 248 represents what people in Talmudic times believed to be
the number of parts in the body, and 365 represents the number of days
in a solar year. However, it wasn’t until later times that the mitzvot to be included in the 613 were defined exactly, with Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot
as the most authoritative listing. According to that counting, this
Torah portion includes 23 of the 248 positive and 27 of the 365
negative mitzvot.

Commandments are found in many places in the Bible; sometimes the same mitzvah appears in more than one place. For example, we read the Ten Commandments twice, in Ex. 20:2’14 and Deut 5:6’18. In Parashat Mishpatim, we read the negative mitzvah
‘A judge shall not favor the poor’ (Ex. 23:6), which is also found in
Lev. 19:15. (Coincidentally, two recent reruns of the popular
television program ‘Law and Order’ dealt with just this question.) The
positive mitzvah ‘You shall serve God’ (Ex. 23:25) also appears in three other places, in Deut. 6:13, 11:13, and 13:5.

Over time, many reasons have been advanced for why we should follow these mitzvot. Here are eight:

  1. Because God ordered us to do them.
  2. To improve human behavior’compassion, loving-kindness, and peace in the world. (Maimonides, Yad Shabbat)
  3. To save the world. The world is an orchard created by the great
    gardener, God. The commandments are instructions to tend the garden. If
    they are followed, if we take care of the orchard, it will survive and
    bear fruit. (Ex. Rab. 30:9)
  4. To ensure our entry into the olam ha-ba, the world to come.
  5. To participate in the divine mystery and, by our actions, to unite the Blessed Holy One with the Shechina. (Kabbalists)
  6. Because we are the descendants of those who promised to do them.
  7. To identify ourselves as Jews.
  8. To protect, ennoble, discipline, and inspire us. (Heschel, God in Search of Man, chapter 34, pp. 357’358)

Today we have three major Jewish denominations and several significant other movements, each with varying views on which mitzvot are to be followed and which are not. And there are Jews who doubt that there is a Mitzaveh, Commander. If so, why should they be concerned with observing the mitzvot?

Is there one reason that we can all accept no matter where we
identify ourselves on the spectrum of belief? I think there is. We
should do them for ourselves. Through observing mitzvot we express our Jewish values and thereby sanctify our lives. Observing mitzvot

does not require that we share the same concept of God. Whether we
conceive of God as the Commander or as the Highest Good to which we
aspire, mitzvot contribute to making the ordinary into something special (e.g., elevating the ‘animal’ act of eating by saying the Ha-Motzi‘the
blessing before eating bread), and providing us with a civil society,
governing relationships of people with each other and with the natural
world, e.g., ‘You must return lost property to its owner’ (Ex. 23:4);
‘You must not wrong a stranger or oppress him’ (Ex .22:20); ‘When in
your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to
capture it, you must not destroy its trees’ (Deut. 20:19). By acting
with the intention of mitzvah in mind, we raise our ordinary
lives to a higher, to a more spiritual, level. When we help to bring
harmony to the world,we travel in the direction of holiness. For as it
says in Leviticus 19:2,’You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am