Weekly Torah Commentary — Mishpatim January 24, 2014

MISHPATIM Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

In this week’s portion we have instructions/teachings regarding civil relationships. They define personal liabilities and obligations regarding such matters as theft, personal injury, financial and marital obligations, labor employee relationships.

Instructions and guidelines for a civil society occupy a prominent place in Torah laws. To emphasize their importance, many of them are listed in this week’s parsha, which immediately follows the acceptance of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This position reflects God’s attitude regarding the importance of their observance; the spiritual level of Israel in God’s eyes is directly correlated with the peoples’ dedication to their observance.

The Sage, Nachmonides, explains that Mishpatim are important as they spell out in detail the requirements of the proper observance of the Tenth commandment, You shall not covet your fellow’s house. You shall not covet your fellow’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your fellow. (20:14) Proper awareness of this commandment requires a clear recognition of what belongs to a fellow Jew in all these areas; it is his house, his wife etc.

Rabbi Chaim Vital then concludes that to the degree that a Jew faithfully obeys the tenth commandment, one can deduce his level of acceptance of the first commandment. I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before Me.

An aspect of true belief in an all knowing, all-powerful God has as its natural outcome the understanding that the blessings present in each life are divinely ordained. Therefore, those things that belong to his friend were designated by God to be his friend’s possessions, not his. To actively covet someone else’s possessions, then, is tantamount to questioning God’s judgment and His will, and demonstrates a lack of acceptance of the first commandment “I am the Lord your God…”.

God sends each of us to this world to work on our characters. Every individual’s particular life situation is designed by God to compel him/her to improve his inner being, to purify his soul, to mature into a godly person. To resist the demands of Torah instruction reveals the very area in which we need to grow. Far better to yield in obedience for what we resist, persists.

Torah instruction was never meant to be observed solely out of a sense of obligation, grudgingly and joyless. Rather, Torah guidelines are the “path of life”, David wrote, and the outline for a life of joy in relationship with the Holy One of Israel.

In fact, it is in the molding and shaping of the human character, that we discover the significance of Mishpatim. It is only the existence of Mishpatim that makes the sculpting of the human character a free will exercise. If a particular Torah commandment grates on one’s sensibilities, the choice to observe it out of love for God, even when it’s difficult, strengthens moral character and takes us one step closer to being what we created to be: creatures who reflect the image and likeness of God.

If, on the other hand, one chooses to follow his feelings and disregard Torah, that person’s character is damaged negatively. Repentance is the only means of turning that situation around.

In Tune with Torah this week = think about any of the commandments that you may find difficult to observe: are you prone to speak negatively about others? do you envy what others have or feel jealous? are you critical of other people? do you get angry easily? do you “tease” in such a way that others are humiliated? Each of these relates specifically to a Torah commandment. This Shabbat let us examine ourselves honestly and repent of those areas where we really do know better but have been reluctant to change.

Shabbat Shalom

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