Linking the Generations - Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1−24:18)
Mishpatim - [These Are the] Rules
"These are the rules that you shall set before them.”
Compassion and Covenant. These are two words that come to mind when considering this week’s Parasha. Mishpatim – or rules – is at the core of what we read this week. In the narrative, we have been exposed to the 10 commandments and we read about our gathering at Mount Sinai. Moses and the Israelite leadership get additional "rules” from God, and we then have the compelling moment where the Jewish people are said to have accepted God’s law.
In reading the various laws, some seem rather mundane. Lists are not often fun to read. But upon closer look we see the root of some of our modern conceptions of community and governance. When talking to students about this week’s Parasha, it is clear that they understand rules and what they are meant to do. Whether they can follow them all the time is another story entirely. But even our younger students seem to understand that rules keep them safe and ask them to be kind to others. They understand that they shouldn’t steal someone else’s toy because they would not want someone to steal their toy. And sharing is not only something they like to do, but it is clearly something that makes them feel good about themselves.
So when we read in this week’s narrative about the Sabbatical year – when we let the land rest and give what grows there to the poor, we see the roots of environmentalism and our impulse to care for the poor. In so many other passages we read of fairness and restitution. There is much to wrestle with that we may not agree with, but that overarching attempt to list rules that create a more just and fair society is admirable.
A very important part of this story is how those gathered at Sinai accepted these rules. It’s what makes this story about a covenant. In some interpretations that means a code that must be followed – because it must be followed. In the progressive tradition, the term "obligation” is used. I have always agreed with that approach because obligation connotes a responsibility for a larger purpose. Is a law to be followed just because – or because it signifies our role in bringing justice, compassion, and fairness into the world?
Children sometimes need "just because.” But what they will need in order to make these laws a part of their being is the understanding that they have a role to play in a divine plan. Having an obligation also implies choice. If you accept this obligation – you have accepted your role as a partner in creating a just society. If you choose not to – you are responsible for breaking it down. Just like a classroom. If you choose to follow rules, you have made a good choice that benefits all. If you choose not to follow rules – even though you agreed with them – you are responsible for breaking apart its communal fabric. It is amazing how at such a young age, we really do get that.
Torah Study Resources:
ReformJudaism.org Torah Study /
Tots / Mishpatim for Tweens / Leading a Family Torah Discussion