ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם
כי תקנה עבד עברי
This week’s Parasha contains a large number of Mitsvot, almost all of them belonging to the category of “Mishpatim”, Civil Law.
It is worth analyzing the first letter of this Parasha, the VAV which in Hebrew fulfills the function of “and …”, a conjunction. The Sages always pay attention to the presence of this word, and explain what might be the association between the text before”and” and the text that follows “and”. The Sages of the Midrash indicate that this Parasha is the thematic continuation of the previous Parasha. “And” thus, indicates the Divine origin of these Mitsvot: just as the precepts of the previous Parasha, the Ten Commandments, were issued and promulgated by HaShem on Mount Sinai, the laws of this Parasha are also of Divine origin, and were given on Mount Sinai.
We can go a little deeper into the meaning of this Midrash. Last week we saw that Moshe judged the people of Israel from morning till night. This was before the Tora was given. Question: What set of laws did Moshe use to judge the people? The word used there by the Torah is לשפוט, “to judge”, very similar to the word and the initial idea of this Parasha: Mishpatim, “judgments” (in the sense of “rules”, “laws”). Obviously, before the Tora was given, Moshe judged the people according to his own criteria, which undoubtedly was a moral criteria of unblemished integrity, but it still was a “human” criteria. At the beginning of this Parasha HaShem tells Moshe: “And” now, once you have the Tora, “these are the laws that you will present before the them [the people].”
Great lesson. The human criteria is not enough. Not only because it can be subjective but also because it is “relative”. That is, it changes according to the times, the fashions, the cultures and many other psychological and sociological factors. Only a Divine Law can be “eternal” and “contain” absolute moral values.
An example of Divine Law vs human law.
The Laws of this Parasha are considered an independent code, and as we said, they refer mostly to civil laws. Let us compare one aspect of this code with other codes. The American constitution, and I believe that this is the case for most of the Constitutions of civilized countries, begin with topics related to the government: the Congress, the Senate, the House etc. The Tora also contains laws for the government: the King, the Judges, the Senate, etc. But very significantly the code of Mishpatim begins with the weakest echelon of society : עבד עברי , the best translation, in my opinion, is not the literal “Hebrew slave” but “Hebrew indentured servant” men or women (אמה עבריה) who had to work as servants to pay their debts. When the Tora mentions these individuals, it does not do so to speak of their obligations to their Masters! On the contrary: it focuses on the rights of these dispossessed persons. And as it affirms later, that they cannot be treated with violence, humiliated, etc. While human laws, written by the people in power, refer first to the strongest, the laws of HaShem concentrate first on the weakest!
One more example. Of the 53 Mitsvot mentioned in this Parasha none is emphasized as much as the prohibition of abuse of the poor and weak. In Shemot 22: 21-23 כל אלמנה ויתום לא תעון “Do not abuse the widow or the orphan. If you exploit them in any way, they will cry out to me, and I will surely hear their cry, and My anger will be kindled against you. … “.
Only HaShem, His Divine Law, the Tora, cares more and first for the weaker.