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June 20, 2006
Parshat Yitro-Mishpatim

By Steven Saks

Often the original movie or book is better that the sequel. Last year I caught the end of Beverly Hills Cop, staring Eddie Murphy on TV. I had not seen it in years, and I had forgotten how funny a movie it was. It was genuinely a good comedy. However, not to many people will say the same of Beverly Hills Cop Two. And Beverly Hills Cop Three bombed.

Does the Torah follow the same pattern as the movies? Parshat Yitro, which precedes Parshat Mishpatim, is certainly an exciting Parsha. Yitro, the Midianite priest and father-in-law of Moses joined the Hebrews after he heard that God had saved the Hebrews. Yitro brings his daughter Zipporah and grandchildren, thus reuniting Moses with his wife and children.

The excitement continues with the revelation at Sinai. After three days of preparation the children of Israel were ready to receive the Torah. As the Israelites approached the mountain a heavy cloud settled over it along with thunder, lightening and the sound of the Shofar. The mountain was smoking like a furnace as God descended upon it in fire. Sinai trembled. And then the Ten Commandments were revealed.

One would expect an exciting cliffhanger to ensue. However, if you were expecting an exciting sequel you might be very well be disappointed in Parshat Mishpatim. The Parsha begins by explaining civil law. If there is one class law students complain about it is civil procedure. In a word, BORING. Mishpatim even sounds boring; it means ordinances. The scriptwriter should be fired!

The question is obvious. Why does Mishpatim follow Yitro? Rashi explains that Mishpatim is a continuation of Yitro. The first words of Mishpatim is ‘and these.’ The ‘and’ in front of the word these indicated that the ideas promulgated in Yitro continue in Mishpatim.

But do they really? The Ten Commandments (stated in Yitro) present lofty ideas. For instance, the fourth commandment commands us to remember the Shabbat. The fourth commandment introduces the idea of sanctified time. Until this day we have Shabbat. The Christians moved their Sabbath but still retain it, and Friday is the Muslim’s holy day. To a large extent the Ten Commandments created the western civilization’s moral framework. Again and again debates over the Ten Commandments appear. Should they be posted in schools or courtrooms? I do not wish to address that question now.

How is Mishpatim a continuation of Yitro? Mishpatim begins by enacting ordinances protecting the Hebrew slave. The slave has rights! Indeed, Mishpatim is a continuation of Yitro as Rashi explains. Mishpatim‘s ordinances are also from Sinai and are of equal importance.

With the help of our film critic Rashi, the message becomes clear. Mishpatim is juxtaposed to the Ten Commandments to make it clear the manner in which we treated our fellow human beings, even a lowly slave, is just as important as our observance of the Shabbat. Bava Kamma 30a explains that if one wants to be pious he should be scrupulous in the manners of civil law and torts, for in Judaism the concept of the ‘sanctuary’ is in the courtroom as well as the temple. By treating our fellow human being with respect we perform a tremendous Kiddush Hashem.