In last week’s Torah portion, at Sinai, we accepted the need for a community, and the special place of awe-inspired individuals within such a community. God gave us some basic rules for this community, the 10 Commandments, and everything is finally looking pretty bright for the Jewish people on their journey from Egypt. Even if you don’t know the Torah, you know just from basic history that things don’t stay this way for the Jews forever. However, right now in our story, in Parshat Mishpatim, things are calm and looking good. In this week’s parsha, God gives through Moses a series of laws, we accept them, and then Moses goes up to the mountain for 40 days, leaving Aaron in charge. Now, does God give us every law right there and let us journey on our way? No, otherwise there doesn’t be much point in Moses climbing the mountain. Plus, according to tradition there are 613 Commandments, and while just reading through all of these laws may seem so tedious that you feel like there must be at least 613, trust me there’s actually a lot less.
As I think the best way to understand the text is through asking questions, my question for this week is: What is so special about these laws that they are given before most of the others, but after the 10 Commandments? (Note, I invite others to give their answers in the comments section.
Before suggesting my answer, I’m going to take a step back to my d’var last week and focus on what I said about a community accepting divine authority. In order for a group of people to be a truly united community rather than just a few thousand people living together, they need to accept some form of authoritative legal structure upon themselves. These were men and women who had spent their whole lives as slaves, so a part of them is used to authority, but at the same time, they are newly free from that slavery. After spending at least 18 years of our lives living under the thumbs of our parents, how many of us go to college and rebel, only to realize a little late that we now live under the thumb of society and its rules, both social and legal? Unlike us crazy kids, these freed slaves are aware that they need rules, but they don’t know exactly what those rules should be. The 10 Commandments are given, and anyone who hears them can accept them as pretty basic statements of what you should and shouldn’t do. While a ton of depth can be found within the 10 Commandments, as laws they aren’t really enough to run a society. The people say “We need rules,” and instead all they are given are moral guidelines. The set of rules in this week’s parsha work to remedy this. Moses their leader is about to climb Mt. Sinai for over a month, and while he may trust his brother Aaron to guide them, a great leader never just vanishes without giving some guidelines, and so Moses structures the community with courts and gives them laws to keep them united while he is gone.
Now, that could make sense, except that it doesn’t. Why would a bunch of refugees in a desert need rules about slavery, jubilee years and holidays that aren’t even going to come around during the time their leader is away? While these are laws in of themselves, they also give ethical guidelines to the judges that Moses appointed. We know murdering and stealing aren’t good, but we can take the stance of Thomas Hobbes that we follow these sort of laws because they serve our personal interests in self-preservation. It’s only when Moses gives laws on slavery and property that we begin to realize that it isn’t just about what is physically best, but that there are overriding ideas that God wants us to learn from. We don’t kill, steal or mistreat slaves because it is wrong to do these things. With these we see the difference between the Jewish laws and the code of laws of earlier societies. Jewish law cares about values and morality. In the stated case, the value of justice is given importance. Other laws, such as the introduction of the three festivals, can be interpreted to teach us values such as the importance of serving God. From them, we can derive how to maintain a just and fair community dedicated to God.
So Moses gives these laws to the people before leaving as a way to keep them on the right path while he is gone. They serve as tastes of what’s to come, and hopefully will be enough to maintain peace in the camps until he returns. The people may not understand, they aren’t used to a moral world, but after Egypt, they know that something has to be done differently, and thus they say to God, “We will do, and we will hear.” We will follow these seemingly random laws, and in doing so we will come to understand the need for morality; the need to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from becoming Egypt, a land defined by its spiritually void and amoral society.
David Gutbezahl is a recent graduate of Ramapo College in Jersey.