Mishpatim - Setting Norms
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
The final verses in last week's Parsha, in the aftermath of the giving of
the Torah, listed four commandments. 1. (20:20) Do not make gods of gold
and silver. 2. (20:21) The Mizbeach - alter must sit directly on the
ground. It cannot be a platform situated on pylons or legs. (That is why
the hollowed structure of the Mizbeach had to be filled with dirt or sand -
See Rashi) 3. When using stones to construct the Mizbeach they must not be
cut or shaped by metal tools. 4. To avoid exposing the Kohain's ankles when
ascending the Mizbeach, a ramp, not steps, must be used to get to the top.
Why were these four laws stated right after Mattan Torah - the Giving of
The placement of these four Mitzvos after the Giving of the Torah and
preceding this week's Parsha of social laws suggests that in some way they
serve as a summation of Revelation and an introduction to this week's
compendium of social laws.
The Aseres Hadibros - Ten Commandments have captured the attention of the
world. Most religions and cultures view them as the fundamental formulation
of personal and societal ethical behaviors. They are more often quoted in
relation to social and individual behavioral expectations than any other
set of rules.
As students of the Torah we understand the importance of these Ten Statements.
First they declare the primacy of G-d as Creator of the universe. Secondly,
they declare the primacy of G-d the Law Giver and the value of human life
as the basis for all social and familial relationships.
The proof of this thesis is the final commandment, "Do not covet your
neighbor's wife or property." (20:15) Coveting refers to desire and
jealousy, not necessarily action. As Rav Hirsch explains,
"A mortal ruler can legislate against such acts as murder and theft, but
only G-d can demand that the people sanctify their thoughts and attitudes
to the point where they purge themselves of such natural tendencies as
jealousy and covetousness."
The basis for all social justice is the acceptance that a person and his
property are divinely conferred. Therefore, a true believer should respect
the person and property of another with the same determination that he
would not deny G-d's primacy. Murder and thievery in any form is tantamount
to idol worship. The Tenth Commandment instructs that the true believer
purges his mind and heart of all desire for that which is not his and that
which he cannot legally attain.
The Tenth Commandment focuses us on the importance of personal development.
It is not sufficient to live in a society where people control their
emotions and behaviors. As my Father Shlita often asks, "Would you want to
be with a person who continuously struggle ask himself, "Should I kill
today or shouldn't I kill today? You see that person? I could kill him, but
I won't. It is not nice. It is not moral. It is not ethical. I will control
myself." As the Rambam writes, "If you live in a evil society, run for the
hills, hide out in caves, escape from society!"
G-d intended humanity to have a base line of behavior that is standard for
all families and societies. G-d did not intend His gift of freewill to be a
continuous burden. Certain fundamental beliefs and values, such as the
primacy of G-d and the value of a person and his property, must become the
norms of personal and social interaction. They must become the reactive
response rather than the deliberate response. They must be the expected
rather than the hoped for. A society can succeed when the primacy of G-d
and the value of a person and his property have been removed from the
dynamics of freewill and decision-making.
The four Mitzvos at the end of last week's Parsha underscore the primacy of
G-d the Creator and the value of a person and his property.
The first Mitzvah, "Do not make gods of gold and silver," establishes G-d's
primacy. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
With the second Mitzvah, the Torah focused on the Mizbeach. The Alter
represents offerings, and Tefilah - prayer. Offerings and prayers are
intended to be the daily expression of our absolute subjugation to G-d's
primacy. To subjugate our will in the service of G-d is to embrace the
primacy of G-d. To embrace the primacy of G-d is to integrate the value of
a person and his property into the norms of personal and social
interaction. Therefore, the Mizbeach and its laws emphasize this
fundamental understanding of who we are and why G-d created us.
The second Mitzvah, "The Mizbeach must sit directly on the ground,"
establishes our responsibility as G-d's subjects to elevate the material
world in service to G-d. The degree to which we use the physical world in a
manner that reveals the primacy of G-d and the value of every person and
his property is the degree to which we elevate the world into the realm of
purpose and meaning. Therefore, "the Mizbeach can not be a platform
situated on pylons or legs. Rather it must be a pile of dirt or stones
rising from the earth and symbolically reaching upward toward the heavens.
The third Mitzvah, "When stones will be used to construct the Mizbeach they
must not be cut or shaped by metal tools," establishes our responsibility
as G-d's subjects to elevate the social world in service to G-d. Metal
tools symbolize weaponry and strife. In their most extreme form, social and
familial differences result in social breakdown, revolution, and armed
History is a long and ignoble record of religious intolerance and violence.
Crusades, inquisitions, jihads, pogroms, genocides, ethnic cleansings, and
tribal massacres have left in their wake a legacy of death and destruction.
Without doubt, every instance of wanton murder and annihilation used
religion to justify their hatred, bias, and intolerance. Therefore,
humanism and its myriad of religious manifestations (justifications)
subjugated G-d to its own vile purposes rather than being an expression of
society's subjugation to G-d. It was G-d in the service of society, not
society in the service of G-d.
The Jewish mission as stated before Mattan Torah was to be a "kingdom of
priests and a holy nation." The symbolic expression of our priestly
holiness was the daily service in the Temple and our prayers. They are our
expression of devotion and subjugation. They obligate us to serve G-d
through serving humanity. The most effective way of serving humanity is to
manifest our devotion to G-d and His laws in the daily workings of our
families and society. Therefore, the Mizbeach must remain apart from all
human strife and conflict. Individual wants, needs, and differences are not
significant in relation to G-d and His intentions. Our needs and wants
should be defined by G-d's wishes, not the opposite. Therefore, metal tools
symbolizing weaponry and strife cannot be used in the construction of the
The final Mitzvah, "Avoid exposing the Kohain's ankles by using a ramp to
ascend the Mizbeach," complements the Tenth Commandment, "Do not covet your
neighbor's wife or property."
Tzniut - modesty is a situational and circumstantial value. There are some
givens that are not negotiable; however, it is understood that some degrees
of undress and styles of dress can be determined by setting and purpose.
The heightened sensitivity demanded by G-d in relation to the Mizbeach must
therefore be understood.
Mattan Torah set the Jews apart from all other nations. As the evil Billam
declared, "They are a nation that dwells alone and does not judge itself by
the scales of other nations." (Bamid.23:9) Just as the Torah sets us apart
from all other people so too clothing sets the human apart from all other
As the Kohain ascended the Mizbeach he represented his nation and world in
service to the Creator. His unique divinity in being created in G-d's image
demanded the most extreme modesty so that he would be as symbolically
different from the other animals inhabiting the world as possible. The
other animals are part of the physical world and only the physical world.
They cannot elevate the physical universe through the subjugation of their
free wills to G-d's laws. Only the human, and in this instance, the
representative of humanity - the Kohain - can elevate the physical world in
service to G-d. Therefore, he must willfully cover himself from head to toe
to proclaim his distinctiveness. As such, the Kohain proclaimed the
uniqueness of being human and the choseness of his nation. As such, the
Kohain manifested the Jews purpose and humanity's purpose in being created.
He was created to receive G-d's Torah and thereby serve both nation and
humanity. G-d and humanity do not serve the Jew. The Jew serves G-d and
The first word in Mishpatim continues with the same theme of the primacy of
G-d the Law Giver and the value of human life as the basis for all social
and familial relationships. Rashi quotes the Mechilta that explains why the
Parsha begins with the letter "Vuv." "Vuv - and" at the beginning of a word
functions as a bridge between the present topic and the topic that preceded
it. The letter "Vuv" connects the lesson of Mattan Torah and the 4
concluding Mitzvos to Parsha Mishpatim.
The laws detailed in this week's Parsha are primarily social. Most
societies conveniently divorce G-d from society; the often-toted
"separation of church and state." The legal codes governing various
societies reflect, at best, human hope, intelligence, courage, and
limitations. At worse, they perpetrate evil and disaster upon humanity. The
only way to maximize success and minimize failure is to impose G-d and His
law. G-d is not subject to time and His law is not subject to change.
Whether the laws of Shabbos and Kashrus or the laws of justice and personal
responsibility, all of them are were divinely given at Mt. Sinai.
The key to understanding the social laws of Mishpatim is to reflect on the
fundamental reason for doing them. Most, if not all of the 54 Mitzvos in
Mishpatim, are rational and humanistic. They are emotionally agreeable and
intelligent. However, as recorded at the end of the Parsha (24:7) the Jews
proclaimed, "We will do as You command and then we will attempt to
understand why." First and foremost, we will do as G-d commands, regardless
of what we think or feel. However, we will attempt through the study of
Torah to understand G-d's reasons. However, if we should fail to unlock the
rational of the Divine, we will not falter in our obligation to fulfill His
laws. The challenge of Mishpatim is to go beyond the levels of our
comprehension and make the primacy of G-d and the value of a person and his
property the norms of our personal and social interaction.
The Four Parshios
Practically speaking, Shabbos was the one-day during the week when the
community gathered. Therefore, the Rabbis chose Shabbos as the most
opportune time to make timely Halachic and communal announcements.
Associating these announcements with a Torah portion is indicative of the
focus that each of us is supposed to have in regards to integrating Hashem
(G-d) into our lives. These announcements were not simply relegated to a
public pronouncement or a few lines on a sheet, but were associated with
the reading and the study of
There are four special Shabbosim preceding Pesach when additional portions
from the Torah are read. Set rules determine when each of these additional
Parshios is to be read.
Parshas Shekalim, the first of the special Shabbosim preceding Pesach, is
read on the Shabbos that precedes the month of Adar, or the Shabbos of Rosh
Chodesh Adar (when Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos coincide-as they do this year).
Parshas Zachor is read on the Shabbos before Purim. Parshas Parah is read
on the Shabbos before the Shabbos of Parshas Hachodesh. Parshas Hachodesh
is read on the Shabbos before the month of Nissan or the Shabbos of Rosh
Chodesh Nissan (when Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos coincide).
A key function of the Bais Hamikdash was the offerings of the daily, Korban
Tzibur - communal offerings. The designation of "communal" was because
every male adult, 20 years and older, donated a ½ shekel toward the
purchase of the daily communal offerings. (Inherent in the concept of the ½
shekel and the communal offerings was the importance of family units, not
individuals.) These monies were gathered and used to purchase the daily
sacrifices. The law requires that all offerings must be purchased from
monies collected for that year. The fiscal year for public offerings was
from Nissan to Nissan. Therefore, the Rabbi's ordained that the portion of
the Torah (KiTisa) describing the first collection of the ½ shekel be read
on the Shabbos of or before Rosh Chodesh Adar, one month before the ½
shekel was due, as a reminder that everyone should send in their money.
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.