When we first encounter this week’s Parsha, we find ourselves bewildered by the plethora of mitzvot, both positive and negative, which comprise the body of the Parsha. How are we to make sense of it? Are the mitzvot described within interconnected? The question is only strengthened by the juxtaposition of our Parsha to the Asseret HaDibrot at the end of Parshat Yitro.
Abarbanel, at the beginning of his commentary on our Parsha, forcefully rejects the notion that we should view Parshet Mishpatim as a hodgepodge of mitzvot and halachot. The very suggestion that there is no coherent order is problematic. If any teacher of English Composition would throw out an essay that lacked coherent structure as not being serious, why would expect less from the Torah itself? (I admit to taking poetic license in translating Abarbanel’s words: “Ki ein raui lyaches lo yitbarach haShofet Kol HaAretz b’toratav dofee u’gnai mhabilti sadur sein raui lyachaso l’katan she b’chachamim.”) Instead, Abarbanel argues that the mitzvot listed in Parshat Mishpatim are a natural extension of Parshat Yitro. These mitzvot, claims Abarbanel, are the content of the Asseret HaDibrot themselves. Bnei Yisrael’s inability to absorb Hashem’s words directly from Him, as the Torah tells us at the end of Parshat Yitro (20:15-16) necessitate that Moshe Rabbenu, and not Hashem, explain the mitzvot to the people. This is the role of Parshat Mishpatim. According to Abarbanel all of the mitzvot in our Parsha are an expansion on the themes presented in the Dibbrot, beginning with the second five, and then proceeding to the first five commandments.
In this context it is interesting to note that Abarbanel, running against the popular notion engendered in the famous gemarah in Makkot (23b) that Bnei Yisrael only heard the first two Dibbrot directly from Hashem, asserts that Bnei Yisrael in fact received all ten Dibbrot from Hashem. Hence, the end of Parshat Yitro tells us that after receiving the Dibbrot diurectly from Hashem, Bnei Yisrael find the encounter with the Divine to be too overwhelming, and ask Moshe Rabbenu to act as a go between. This Moshe does by relaying to them the commands of Parshat Mishpatim. This also explains the “vav hachibur” which connects our Parsha to the Parshat Yitro. V’ele HaMispatim”, AND these are the statutes, says the Torah. Why the vav hachibur? The Torah, answers Abarbanel, is looking to stress the organic link between the Asseret HaDibbrot and the laws that it is about to delineate.
Abarbanel’s approach also fits nicely with the end of our Parasha. In the beginning of Perek 24 (1) the Torah tells us of Hashem’s command to Moshe to go up to Har Sinai. There is a disagreement as to when this particular command was given. Rashi (24:1) suggests that this passuk refers to the command given by Hashem to Moshe prior to his receiving the Asseret HaDibbrot. Abarbanel prefers the approach of Ibn Ezra and Ramban, who believe that this command was given to Moshe after all the laws that are enumerated in our Parsha. According to this approach Moshe relates to Am Yisrael (on the day of Matan Torah) everything Hashem has told him up until this point, and Bnei Yisrael respond Naaseh, we will do! (24:3) The following day, in a public ceremony, Moshe repeats these laws (24:4-7) and Bnei Yisrael’s reaction is even more emphatic. Naaseh- we will do what we have already heard, namely the laws in our Parasha, V’Nishma- we will listen to any subsequent laws that Hashem commands you. Satisfied that Bnei Yisrael are truly accepting the Torah, Moshe then brings them into a Brit with Hashem (8) and returns to Har Sinai.
This approach preserves the common conception of Bnei Yisrael’s proclamation of Naaseh V’Nishma! in its most passionate form, a proclamation of obedience made as a statement of faith in Hashem and his messenger, Moshe Rabbenu. It is interesting to note that not all the classical commentators see this statement as being quite so bold. Rav Saadia Gaon suggests that the words are flipped and in fact Bnei Yisrael are saying Nishmah v’Naaseh. Ibn Ezra suggests a number of possibilities, including that Naaseh refers to Mizvot toward which we have a natural inclination (hanituot b’lev) while Nishmah indicates our willingness to be bound to those Mitzvot that we receive as part of the Masoret. Abarbanel himself suggests that perhaps the word “Nishmah” is referring to Bnei Yisrael’s agreement to listen to the angel who Hashem has said he will send with them (see Perek 23 and our previous shiur on that topic, Mishpatim 5762). In any case, these final passukim in Mishpatim serve as a fitting coda for the initial stage of Matan Torah. Maamad Har Sinai begins with Bnei Yisrael receiving the Asseret HaDibbrot from Hashem. It continues with Bnei Yisrael withdrawing from the Divine before the transmission of the full extent of those commands (the Mishpatim) was communicated to them. Instead, they are given to Moshe who repeats them to Am Yisrael, who then brings them into covenant with Hashem once they have accepted them and all subsequent commands, and ends with Moshe returning to Har Sinai to receive the balance of the Torah.
Writing some four hundred years later, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch suggests a different connection between Parshat Mishpatim and the end of Parshat Yitro. Rav Hirsch ended his commentary on Parshat Yitro by suggesting that the final mitzvah in the Parsha, building a mizbayach, is meant to communicate the concept of Jewish justice. The mizbayach can not be constructed with the sword, because Jewish justice is built on Humanity and not on force. It is no coincidence that the Sanhedrin was housed next to the Mizbayach, because justice is an underpinning of any society dedicated to Gd. It is no surprise that the Torah will now come and lay down the basis of a just and humane society.
This suggestion creates a problem for Rav Hirsch, which in turn leads him to a stunning conclusion. If our supposition is correct, why would the Parsha begin with the laws of slavery? Is this the just and humane system that the Torah represents?
Without entering the discussion of how the Torah might condone slavery (R. Hirsch himself has a long discussion of that issue, and Rav Elchanan Samet devotes himself to that question in his Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua) I would like to focus on R. Hirsch’s answer to his own question.
Rav Hirsch suggests that what our Parsha is in fact doing is introducing us to the reality of Torah she Be’al Peh. It is inconceivable that the all the Torah has to say about human rights is what to do when selling a person into slavery. Instead, suggests R. Hirsch, what we have is simply a simple reference to a vast body of law that is not written but is passed down as part of Tradition. All that Torah She B’chtav does is give us a few concrete cases from which the corpus of the law may be recalled and discussed. Rav Hirsch goes as far as to compare Torah She Bechtav to a student’s notes and Torah she Be’al Peh to the actual lecture! The notes serve as a handy tool for recalling the principles, but nothing more. Moreover, the “notes” are virtually useless to one who is not privy to the actual lecture. So Torah She B’chtav tells us of the criminal who must sell himself into slavery, but this is only an opening for the true corpus of law which delineates a man’s natural rights and freedoms. It is this corpus which forms the basis of Mishpat, justice, which must be the foundation of our society.