The chidish of Mishpatim comes from the opening word, and the first Rashi. “V’ele,” Rashi tells us, means that the civil law discussed in this parsha also comes directly from Sinai, just as the last parsha’s overarching moral and ethical ideas. Therefore, the philosophers only hold in accordance with the ideas of the Torah up through Parshat Yitro at best. Even people who claim to be “good Jews” who keep the written Torah but don’t hold by the Gemara or oral law never seem to read past Yitro and the 10 Commandments, since lots of ideas mentioned in this week’s parsha are never mentioned by these people. In fact, even in American law today, isn’t a bit ironic that judges hold by the 10 Commandments but rarely, if ever, from the laws in Mishpatim? In America judges make huge replicas of the 10 Commandments to put in their courtrooms (and make a fuss when declared unconstitutional) but what about the ideas that follow in this week’s parsha – when to kill a criminal, the amount of retribution for stolen animals, the amount of restitution for entrusted/safeguarded property, restitution for relations with a virgin or not, laws of charging interest, etc. Mishpatim is in the Chumash to teach us that the ideas of Parshat Yitro, the 10 Commandments are not enough by themselves. Mishpatim teaches us that the Torah is fundamentally a law book (recall the 1st Rashi in Bereshit).

To return to the beginning of this discussion, even Kant recognized the uniqueness of Judaism. He also said that Judaism is not merely a “religion” in the way he defined it above, but it is, in his words, “a religious straatsverfassung” – constitutional law in the sense of revealed legislation! Thus the connection between religion and civil law perhaps lies in a verse from this week’s parsha: “You shall be a people of holiness to Me.” Why are we a holy people? Maybe because abiding to divine civil law separates us from all other peoples and religions, and thus leads to kedusha. The law and the religion for us are unified; we can take the ideas from Yitro and now put them into action. Let’s go one step deeper. Superficially a person who doesn’t know much about religion or philosophy would walk into a room of philosophers on a college campus or at a conference and see them discussing lofty metaphysical theories. The person would most certainly think that these people must be on a higher level than people sitting in a Beit Midrash discussing topics of legal technicalities of, say, gittin- right? Please ponder this: a person must realize that once you reach the Divine, the chidish is that it is actually MORE divine to bring G-d down into the everyday mundane legal technicalities of civil law than to always be discussing metaphysical speculation. This is what Parshat Mishpatim does for us – it allows us to bring G-d’s most profound ideas into societal action.

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