Mishpatim, A Dvar Torah

These are the rules that you should set before them.  This is God, speaking to Moses, setting the rules.  There are different kinds of laws in Torah and Talmud:
  • those which signify a special relationship with God
  • those that are not understood by us, the  chukim
  • those that exist in order for a group of people to function as a society.  These are the mishpatim
Mishppatim are the laws that make intuitive sense to us, these are laws that any sensible community would pass.   Don’t murder or steal. These are laws that settle disputes.  These are laws of civilization.  These are laws of peace. 
And this parsha is called Mishpatim, after the laws that makes sense to us.    They come right after the Ten Commandments, and are the first set of detailed laws that might follow logically from the first ten. What if you get in a fight and in the course of it a women miscarries?  What do you do if your ox gores a man, or if you dig a pit and someone comes by and falls in it?  Is it okay to lie in court?  Do you have to return lost goods?  Logical laws of peace and civilization.
As Rashi explains, the first set of laws God gives after the ten commandments are these sensible laws because they are easy to follow.  The laws that don’t make sense are the laws that will mark us off as Jews, these are the laws that make the covenant so difficult and so special.  But first we have to be trained on how to follow the rules with, well, the loss leaders of Jewish Law.  Suck the people in with laws that make sense and then we can lay kashrut on ’em.   And thus, after hearing these rules, the people say,
These are the rules that you should set before them.
All the things that Adonai has commanded we will do!
I am an American, a middle boomer, who grew up believing in democracy with a small d, in a household with crazy and arbitrary parents, in a school system run by martinets and a religion run by men who wouldn’t answer my questions or let me participate simply because I’m female, during a war that was stupid and destructive.  And my first impulse for much of my life has been that when you set rules before me, I am going to argue with you.  As that great sage, Bruce Springsteen wrote, when they said sit down I stood up.
Or at least that’s how I like to think of myself.  The truth is, I’m actually a law-abiding coward.  When they say sit down, I sit down, fancying myself an anti-authoritarian because I make a few wise ass comments as I park my butt in the comfy seat.
Well yes.  But I also sit down because it makes sense to sit down.  There is a right and wrong.  I don’t murder or steal, I don’t go the wrong way down a one way street.  Partly because that’s how I was taught and partly because it makes sense.  Societies where people murder or steal at will are considered barbaric and broken.  Economic systems that don’t allow their workers any rest are ripe for a well-deserved revolution.  We all know this.  We know what is fair.  We are, perhaps, born knowing this.
Researchers have found babies as young as six months old already make moral judgments, and they think we may be born with a moral code hard-wired into our brains. 
These are the rules that you should set before them.
Do we need religion and the threat that a supernatural being is going to ruin our lives or send us to hell if we aren’t good in order to do good?  Don’t you all, past a certain age, and assuming you’re not a psychopath, know what’s good and what’s bad?
Do you need to be a good Jew to be good?
Do we need God in order to be ethical, in order to lead a good life?
Jewish tradition and teaching comes down on the side as firmly as it is possible to come down on a side, of Yes.  We must have laws and these are God’s laws.  The Torah and Talmud and Halakha are all about the rules of what to do and what not to do.     We humans live in community and these are the laws of how to do that in peace. 
how beloved we were by our rabbis, that that they took such care to make sure we lead safe and righteous lives. 
how poorly the Moses and the rabbis must have thought of us to need to control us so completely with so many rules?
Societies without the rule of law are chaotic or tyrannical.  We need to agree on standards of behavior and enforce them.  But do we need moral laws?  And whose morality do we enforce? God’s?  Is God the final arbiter, some grand outside force?  Who is this Torah God to be setting rules for us?  What does any of this have to do with us, now.
It feels like I’m being told to sit down.  I want to stand up.
At the end of the parsha, Moses invites Aaron and the other tribal bigshots up to the base of Sinai to have a close encounter with God, who has enveloped the mountain with a cloud. 
So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.”
At the most holy of moments, as Moses is about to be embraced by God for forty days, to have the entire Torah downloaded into him, to be in intimate relationship with God, Moses makes sure that the chain of command is clear in case anyone has a legal dispute. We don’t need God to remind us of how to run things.  God doesn’t need to give us the mishpatim.  We know what we need.
But we need God in the mishpatim, at least I think we do, however we might define God at any given moment.  I define it, for the purposes of this drash, as the embodiment of our best selves, of the impulse towards community and peace.  The mishpatim are our holy parameters, so that we don’t forget that as mortal humans our vision is limited, our compassion is sometimes lacking, and that our self-control is not always functioning. 
God and God’s law, whether real or our own created construct, extends our vision, reminds us that being our best selves is practical, that choosing the ethical and righteous options is sensible. The mishpatim are the creation of a community that wants and needs to live together in a feeling of holiness and one-ness.  
These are the rules that you should set before them.
All the things that Adonai has commanded we will do!
Rabbi Arthur Green writes,
The statutes can only be placed “before” us:  it is we who have to choose to walk in their ways.  In our day it seems harder than ever to find out how to walk in a way that will lead us all to peace with one another.  But the message is one we need to take to heart:  there is no path to God’s teachings, no way to open the divine wellsprings that lie within us, except that of peace. (From his commentary on his translation of Sefat Emet, Mishpatim)
Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. 
Shabbat Shalom

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