By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
These are the judgments (mishpatim) which you will place before them ...
Just as a side point, it is interesting that last week's parshah ended off
with laws of modesty, just before beginning with these week's parshah, and
mishpatim. The point is simple and pure. Sound judgment is based upon
Because both come to accomplish the same objective: protect human dignity.
The laws of modesty are designed to remind us, and to promote the fact that
we were made in the "image of G-d," and that life is for living up to that
image. Mishpatim--judgments--are laws, or rather, "guidelines" to channel
energies that might otherwise interfere with such a spiritual mandate, the
underlying theme of the entire parshah.
With Parashas Mishpatim, we bring the period of "Shov'vim" to a close. For
those who don't recall, Shov'vim is a word made up of the first letter of
each of the first six parshios of Sefer Shemos:
These are the parshios that detail the redemption from Egypt, which is all
about the formation of the Jewish people as a nation and their acceptance
of their mission of being a "light to nations." But if that is the case,
then why is Mishpatim included? Wouldn't it have been enough to stop with
Parashas Yisro, and the giving of the Ten Commandments?
The truth is, this parshah does a similar thing, seemingly going out of its
way to incorporate all the mishpatim--judgments--into the Sinai experience.
Last week's parshah ended with the giving of Torah on the sixth of Sivan,
which should have been followed by Moshe's ascension up the mountain to
receive the rest of Torah the next day:
G-d said to Moshe, "Come up to Me, to the mountain, and remain there, and I
will give you tablets of stone, and the law, and the commandments which I
have written to teach them ..." (Shemos 24:12)
Instead, where does the Torah place that part of Kabbalos HaTorah? At the
end of this week's parshah--seemingly sandwiching a lot of technical laws
The answer is that famous statement from the rabbis:
The Tablets are the handiwork of G-d, and the script was G-d's script
charus (engraved) on the Tablets. Do not read "charus" (engraved) but
"cheirus" (freedom), for you can have no freer man than the one who engages
in Torah study.
(Pirkei Avos 6:2)
Remember, "Shov'vim" is about achieving freedom. The Har Sinai experience
was very dramatic. People love drama; they love excitement, which is fine,
because that is often the source of a lot of our inspiration in life. We
need inspiration to overcome laziness, and fear, and whatever obstacles the
yetzer hara throws in our paths to deter us in our effort to be closer to
However, says the "mem" of Mishpatim, the "end" of the process has to be
"judgments." It has to be an acceptance that living by Torah means finding
excitement within the details of Torah, using your mind to see past biases,
even if it is difficult, emotionally, do so. It means using our mind to
make sound, Torah judgments, based upon as much Torah as we can martial.
The Jewish people have a penchant for drama (just check out of the history
of Hollywood). However, sometimes we can use our sense of drama and our
imagination to create the illusion of freedom. But that is not true,
LASTING, freedom, for, as it says in Pirkei Avos:
"... You can have no freer man than the one who engages in Torah study."
If a man acts intentionally against his fellow-man, to kill him with
deception, you must take him from My altar that he may die. (Shemos 21:14)
"That is, even if he is a priest who wants to do the Temple service, take
him to be killed." (Rashi)
Of course he is to be taken away to be killed--would we have thought
otherwise? What is the Torah stressing?
The Talmud answers this question, and really, Rashi's words allude to the
answer as well, when he says "even if he is a priest who wants to do the
Temple service." In other words, only if he is not already in the middle of
the service, is he taken away to be killed. In the kohen is already
serving, then, he is not removed until after he finishes what the service
This is one of the reasons the Talmud cites why Yoav, who fled King Solomon
to avoid execution, was killed even though he had clung to the "horns" of
the altar in Shiloh (I Melachim 2:28). He had erred, not realizing that,
even had he been a kohen, it wouldn't have helped him unless he had been in
the middle of the service (Makkos 12a). He had mistakingly sought refuge at
However, the big question is, how can we let a sinner be responsible for
carrying out such an important mitzvah on our behalf? Doesn't the blood on
his hands interfere with the purity of his service of G-d? Does G-d want
the service of a murderer, even an accidental one?
The Rambam, when explaining this law, uses the language of, "hamizbayach
koleit," that is, "the altar collects" (Hilchos Rotza'ach 5:12). In other
words, there is something special about G-d's altar (at least in the Temple
and for a priest in the midst of the Temple service), that "pulls" the
kohen in and provides him with temporary immunity.
Perhaps it was the fact that the Temple service was done on behalf of the
entire Jewish nation, and not for the kohen himself. Thus we find, many
times in halachah, that the need of the community is the reason for
leniencies not otherwise permitted. One classic case is when the majority
of the Jewish people are in a state of spiritual impurity, and there is not
enough time to become purified before sacrificing the Pesach-Offering.
Normally, it is forbidden to offer the Pesach-Offering while in a state of
spiritual impurity. For such individuals, they usually have to wait until
the following month for what is called, "Pesach-Sheni," the "Second
Passover" on the fourteenth of Iyar.
However, when the majority of the nation is impure, rather than push them
off for a whole month, the halachah itself is pushed off by another
halachah that says, offer the Pesach-Offering anyhow. Such is the power of
the community, and its fulfillment of its commitments to G-d.
You must be a holy people to Me-do not eat any flesh torn out in the field;
it may be given to dogs. (Shemos 22:30)
This law is the one not to eat meat from a kosher animal that was wounded
in such a way as to lead to its death. It is really "treif," because the
word itself means to be "torn." However, unlike a mixture of milk and meat
that was cooked together (Shemos 23:19--also in this week's parshah), one
can still derive some benefit from it, such as feeding the meant to his
However, the Zohar adds an element to this that opens up the whole
discussion about kashrus:
... It may be given to dogs...
"This refers to SMA"L ..." (Zohar, Tzav 49)
In case you don't recognize these letters, they are the English equivalent
of the letters: samech, mem, aleph, lamed. Don't sound out the letters,
because they form a name we don't like to pronounce--the name of the
Obstructing Angel, the facilitator of all of man's evil in This World. It
is to him that you can throw this treif meat.
No offense to dog-lovers, but the Zohar is telling us that "dog" here is a
euphemism for that negative angel. Throwing treif meat to the dog in this
posuk symbolizes throwing it to the Angel of Evil.
Why? And why should we even have to know about this?
In short, kashrus is not just about diet--it is about recognizing what is
holy and what is unholy in This world, in order to adhere to that which is
holy. As the verse began:
You must be a holy people to Me ...
Our physical eyes do not reveal to us what the spiritual world looks like.
But if they did, we would see a different picture. With such a spiritual
vision, you would look at a kosher animal, and you'd see an aura of light
radiating out from it. If you looked at a human being, you would see an
even more intense spiritual light--the more spiritual the object, the more
intense the light.
However, impure things in creation, such as unkosher food, would reveal an
absence of light. It would be clear from looking at such objects that they
only prevent one from achieving spiritual growth. We would know to avoid
such food because we would be sensitive to the fact that it contains
elements of creation that pull us in the wrong direction.
However, most of us do not possess the ability to view things this way.
Therefore, the Torah tells us what to eat to be holy, and what to avoid.
The Zohar builds upon the Torah's words by elucidating them. This way, we
can understand why the Torah is so strict about areas of life, such as
I will send an angel before you to safeguard you on the way, and bring you
to the place that I have prepared. Be careful in his presence and heed his
voice. Do not rebel against him, since My name is with him. He will not
forgive your disobedience ... (Shemos 23:20)
Regarding these possukim, the Rambam writes:
"The point of this verse is explained in the Mishnah Torah, as G-d told
Moshe at Mt. Sinai, 'I will raise up a prophet from among them, like you,
and I will put My words in his mouth, so that he can tell them all that I
have commanded him. Whoever does not listen to My words which he will speak
in My name, I will hold guilty.' (Devarim 18:18). The proof of this is
because it says here, 'Be careful in his presence and heed his voice ...'
Now, there is no doubt that this command was meant for the masses, yet, the
masses could not see an angel and therefore did not need to be warned
regarding one. Rather, this is telling them about the prophet who will rise
up among them, whom an angel will instruct and command, and therefore, they
were warned regarding the angel, whose words the prophet will give over to
us ..." (Moreh Nevuchim 2:34).
In other words, all prophets, other than Moshe, could only receive their
prophecy through an angel. By disregarding prophecy, one was, in fact,
disregarding the angel who brought that prophecy. According to the Ralbag,
however, "angel" actually refers to the prophet himself, and not a real
angel. From the Book of Yehoshua itself, it would appear as if a real angel
did in fact lead the Jewish people:
When Yehoshua was in Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and saw a man standing
opposite him, with his sword drawn in his hand. Yehoshua went to him and
asked him, "Are you for us, or for our enemies?" He answered him, "No, but
I am the captain of the host of G-d; I have now come ..." (Yehoshua
"I have come now ... To your aid, for no man can wage war against Jericho
and seize it, to throw down the wall. But in the time of Moshe your master,
I came and he did not want me, as it says, 'If Your Presence does not go
...' (Shemos 33:15)." (Rashi)
This whole discussion may seem academic, because we have neither angels nor
prophets leading us today. Or so we may think. Part of G-d's promise to
never abandon us means that we can also expect Him to lead our Torah
leaders, in EVERY generation, one way or another. They may not yet have
prophecy, but they do have something called "siyitah d'shamayah"--help from
Heaven--extra Divine assistance conferred upon them because of their high
standing in Torah learning, and their fear of G-d.
So, the posuk may not be as irrelevant as we may have first thought, and it
should give us what to think about the next time we feel like questioning
the wisdom of the Torah sages of our generation.