Parshas Mishpatim (I)
Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Mishpatim, 5631 (I)
The Sfas Emes starts with a very brief allusion to the Parsha's first
Rashi. Echoing Chazal in Medrash Rabba, Rashi tells us that when the
Torah begins a paragraph with the word "Ve'eileh" ("And these ... "),
the Torah is saying, in effect, "Continuing with what I was saying
This.perspective on the text raises some questions. First, how can we
view Parshas Mishpatim , with its presentation of apparently mundane
statutes -- as the continuation of the previous Parsha, Yisro -- with
its narrative of our encounter with HaShem at Sinai? Another
question: why do Rashi and Chazal consider a tight link between these
two parshios so important that they immediately draw our attention to
The Sfas Emes also repeats a question of his grandfather, the
Chiddushei HaRim.. Rashi (on Shemos 21:1) says that HaShem told Moshe
to include in his teaching Torah to Bnei Yisroel an explanation of the
reasons for the mitzvos. On this statement, the Chiddushei HaRim
asked: Why did HaShem tell Moshe to include an explanation of the
reasons for the mitzvos particularly in the context of the mishpatim,
As you just saw, the word "mishpatim" is usually translated as
"statutes." This word denotes laws that apply to people's social or
economic activities -- in apparent contrast with "religious"
activities (i.e., behavior connected to our relationship with
HaShem). Further, mishpatim are laws that are eminently rational.
That is, these are laws which, if not set forth in the Torah, would in
any event, have been devised by rational human beings.
As you see, mishpatim are in sharp contrast to "chukim" (decrees). The
prototype of a chok is the law of pahra aduma (the ritual of
purification using the ashes of the red heifer). Chukim are laws which
-- a person might think -- differ from mishpatim in two ways. First,
in apparent contrast to mishpatim, chukim seem to apply only to
"religious" activity. -- not to laws that govern our social and
economic activities. (I say "in apparent contrast" because in
reality, observing the Torah's laws that adjudicate our social and
economic behavior is also a religious act.) Further, chukim are laws
whose meaning and content are difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to
understand. Chukim are so distant from human rationality that we
would never have devised them on our own.
Let us see how the Sfas Emes addresses these questions.
First, why "Ve'eileh"? That is, why does the Torah emphasize the
continuity of this parsha with the previous one? The Sfas Emes
explains that recognizing the continuity of Mishpatim with Yisro is
crucial. Why? To emphasize the fact that, just as the Aseres Hadibros
(the Ten Commandments) come to us by Divine revelation at Sinai, so,
too, all the statutes come to us by divine revelation at
Sinai. Accordingly, the validity and the binding nature of the
mishpatim are not based on our rationality, but rather on our bris
(covenant) with HaShem at Sinai.
The Sfas Emes continues his analysis. The fact that (some) of the
Torah's statutes statutes appear to (some of) us as rational is also
only because HaShem wants it that way. That is, we can generally
perceive seichel (rationality) in the Torah's statutes. But we should
be aware that the intelligence that enables us to see that rationality
is not an inherent feature of human nature. Similarly, the rationality
present in the Torah's statutes is not an intrinsic quality of those
laws. Both our seichel and the seichel present in the mishpatim are
there only because that is retzon HaShem, HaShem's will.
An analogy may help clarify these ideas. The analogy focuses on the
laws of nature that HaShem incorporated into the world when He created
it. HaShem could have created a world that functioned purely on random
happenings. Instead, He fashioned a cosmos that operates with
empirical regularities (the "laws of nature"). Life in a world of
random happenings would be very disconcerting and unpleasant. So we
can thank HaShem for having made the world the way He did. HaShem
accorded us an additional kindness when He formulated the empirical
regularities in a manner that can often be expressed in the language
of mathematics. Finally, note that HaShem endowed human beings with
the seichel needed to discern the "laws of nature."
We see the parallel with the mishpatim. HaShem created us with
intelligence needed to perceive the logic behind many of the
statutes. The Sfas Emes is telling us not take for granted the form
with which the mishpatim are fashioned. It is only because HaShem
wanted to do it that way that the statutes come to us in the sensible
and intelligible form that HaShem gave them.
The Sfas Emes moves on now to another line of thought. We know about
our people's willingness to accept HaShem's commandments sight unseen:
the famous "Na'ah'seh Ve'nishma" (Shemos, 24:7). In our willingness to
do retzon HaShem even before we know what He will ordain, Chazal
(Shabbos 88a) liken us to HaShem's mal'achim (angels, emissaries).
For just as we put asiya (action) before shemiya (receiving
information), so too the malachim are described (Tehillim, 103:21) as
"Giborei ko'ach, osei devaro, lishmo'a bekol devaro ... " (That is,
Heroes, who do His word" . Only later in the posuk are we told:
"receiving information about what He wants us to do.")
The fact that Chazal liken us to the mal'achim, who are " osei devaro"
leads the Sfas Emes to a mind-streching non-pshat. The literal meaning
of the phrase "osei devaro" is: "they who do His word." However, the
Sfas Emes reads "osei devaro" as: "By means of our actions, we form
the words of HaShem." That is, if we strive in our Avoda -- our asiya
-- to express the words of our davening and Learning -- with our inner
will and strength, we can make the letters of the Torah take on new
life. In turn, the words that we have renewed give chiyus to the
people who struggle with them.
Continuing with this thought, the Sfas Emes quotes a posuk in Tehillim
(147:19): "Maggid devaro leYa'akov, chukav u'mishpatav leYisrael"
(ArtScroll: "He relates His word to Jacob, His statutes ... to
Israel"). The Sfas Emes construes "Maggid devaro leYa'akov" as: HaShem
gives Klal Yisroel the power to draw on the internal vitality of His
words. Depending on a person's ratzon -- his volition -- he/she can
have access to the internal vibrancy of HaShem's words. A person can
constantly hear new meaning in the very same words. The new meanings,
in turn, can enable a person attain that rare, desired state: constant
self-renewal and growth.
I am not clear whether to take this promise as wildly encouraging or
wildly discouraging. It certainly puts heavy responsibility on our
Copyright © 2004 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org