by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
This portion of the Torah is called "Mishpatim", which means judgements.
Our Sages divide the Commandments into three categories: those which
signify our special relationship with G-d, those that are not understood by
us ("statutes"), and judgements - laws that every nation realizes must
exist in order for a group of people to function as a society. This last
category includes prohibitions against murder, kidnapping, stealing,
cheating in business, and even setting up a court system.
Why did G-d place the Torah portion of "Mishpatim," which contains more
laws than any other, immediately following the revelation at Sinai? Answers
Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki: in order that we realize that just as the
Ten Commandments were given at Sinai, so were all the others - even those
that appear totally rational under a man-made system.
It is traditional in yeshivos -- and has been for centuries -- to launch
young boys into the sea of Talmud not at the first chapter of Brachos, the
first tractate, but with the second chapter of Bava Metziah, part of the
order concerning damages (there are six orders of Mishnah). The chapter is
called "Elu Metzios" -- "these found objects are yours, and these must be
announced." The Mishnah in that chapter discusses whether various objects
are identifiable enough to require the finder to attempt to return them to
their owners. Unfortunately, the objects used there are such items as a
ring of figs, not immediately familiar to today's middle school student.
Some educators came to Reb Moshe Feinstein zt"l and asked: why not change?
The first tractate of Brachos discusses when a person must read the Shema
in the evening. It is immediately relevant to every boy!
He replied that they must not change, but continue to teach "Elu Metzios"
first. A child, he said, must understand that "these found objects are
yours, but these you must announce [and return to their owner]" is also
Torah. The Torah is not just ritual.
Furthermore, it is all-encompassing, requiring a truly rigorous standard of
justice and ethics. Just consider the contrast between "these found objects
are yours, but these you must announce [and return to their owner]," and
what I learned in public school: "finders keepers, losers weepers"...
May we strive to meet the Higher Standard!