"Now these are the statutes which you shalt set before them."
Mishpatim - Statutes - is the name of this week's Torah reading, (Exodus 21:1-24:18). The title aptly describes the content. Mishpatim is involved almost exclusively with statutes defining how man should act toward his fellow man, and the consequences when neighborly relations are conducted in such a way that grievances occur. Many of the grievances enumerated in Mishpatim involve damages incurred to private property and damages caused by private property. This would seem to be the stuff for lawyers, but why does Torah involve us with these statutes now?
After all, we have just experienced as a nation a revelation that literally shook the earth upon which we stood. The Ten Commandments set before us the most lofty of human expectations, "You shalt have no other gods before Me" (ibid 20:3) and the most basic of human requirements, "Don't steal" (ibid 20:13). We received these words in a heightened state of consciousness, as our very senses strained beyond their normal limitations, "And all the people saw the thundering, and the lightning, and the sound of the shofar..." (ibid 20:13) We have been charged with becoming for G-d "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation," (ibid 19:6), and we have accepted upon ourselves without reservation His command, "'All that HaShem has spoken we will do.'" (ibid 19:8) We're pumped, we're primed, we're ready for greatness, the exalted and sublime. G-d responds by instructing us, through Moshe, the statutes of damages.
Perhaps Torah is teaching us that greatness begins with goodness. Before we change the world, before we become a light to the nations, we must first learn how to get along with one another, to come together as a people, united in heart and in purpose. Only when we learn how to conduct ourselves even in the most mundane, profane and bothersome situations can we turn our attention to pursuits of vision and holiness. For at the heart of Mishpatim is the deceptively simple and immensely profound truth that holiness can be found, and must be injected, into the seemingly profane. G-d really doesn't need our help to make the holy holy. But he has entrusted us with making the profane holy.
The reading of Mishpatim concludes and then begins the reading of Terumah, in which is described the national task of gathering together the requisite materials and building the Tabernacle and vessels. This great responsibility in which the children of Israel can only proceed forward once they have reached a state of trust and respect and unity, can only follow, and not precede, Mishpatim - those statutes that allow us to live together.
The Torah teaches us a very sobering lesson by juxtaposing Mishpatim with the Sinai revelation: Only with our feet planted firmly on the ground will we be able to accomplish all that G-d has in store for us. The prophet Micha stated it succinctly:
"It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what HaShem requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d." (Micha 6:8)
Justice, love, mercy and humility, these are the qualities that inform Torah statutes. Once we become embodiments of these qualities, we become ready to assume the great assignment of building, together and as one, the Holy Temple, in which G-d will dwell among us.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the transition from revelation to action, the amazing Yitro and his eternal contributions to the people of Israel, and the parashat Mishpatim groundwork being laid for the building of the Tabernacle/Holy Temple.