After Sinai

It has been said that the most puzzling thing about Parshat Mishpatim is the parshah itself. This is the first parshah after the revelation at Sinai, and we might have expected that after this revelation the Torah would concern itself with lofty, spiritual matters. Instead, the Torah immediately concerns itself with legalities, including laws of servants and maidservants, cases of one man striking another, and capital punishment.

To be sure, Parshat Mishpatim is of enormous halachic value. It is the Torah’s gift to the yeshiva world. The parshah contains a significant percentage of the major halachic sources for large swaths of Seder Nezikin and quite a few other parts of the Talmud. What is more, the Talmud says of civil law, which the parshah deals with, that “no branch of the Torah surpasses them, for they are like a never-failing spring.”1 Nevertheless, after all this praise for the parshah and its content, it is still surprising to find such content immediately following the spiritual climax of Sinai.

Toward the end of the parshah, the concern with legal matters ends, and the Torah once again returns to lofty matters. Moses and the nation’s elders ascend the mountain, and the Torah describes an exalted scene: “They beheld a vision of the G‑d of Israel, and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick.”2

Parshat Mishpatim is of enormous halakhic value. It is the Torah’s gift to the yeshiva world

The Torah continues in the same vein at the beginning of Parshat Terumah, in the command to build the Tabernacle – “They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst”3 – where the subject is the Shechinah dwelling among the People of Israel. The construction of the Tabernacle is related to the revelation at Sinai, another aspect of the same event that began to unfold there. In our first meeting with G‑d at Sinai, we transcended the human level in preparation for the encounter with G‑d outside, in the wide open expanse surrounding Mount Sinai. The section on the Tabernacle, then, is the natural continuation of this encounter. After G‑d reveals Himself at Sinai, He then desires to reside among us. As a result, we build Him a house, a place for Him to dwell.

This relationship can also be seen in Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the First Temple. On the one hand, Solomon says, “G‑d has chosen to dwell in a thick cloud”4 and “Even the heavens and highest reaches cannot contain You;”5 and on the other hand, “I have built for You a residence, a place for You to dwell in forever.”6 These two aspects – G‑d’s transcendence and His immanence, His presence with us in our world – are essentially connected, and the same kind of connection exists between the giving of the Torah and the building of the Tabernacle.

Thus, the end of Parshat Mishpatim and the beginning of the parshah that follows it are the natural continuation of the revelation at Sinai. By contrast, what we find throughout most of this parshah are earthly matters – laws and ordinances – which seem out of place.

What we find throughout most of this parshah are earthly matters – laws and ordinances – which seem out of place

To be sure, even after the exalted experience at Mount Sinai, there was a need to deal with various laws, a need that was perhaps quite pressing. It is reasonable to assume that even the day after the revelation at Sinai, various practical questions began to arise that had to be answered, even if they were relatively insignificant. However, an examination of Parshat Mishpatim reveals that it mostly deals with matters that, though practical, nevertheless do not generally come up in the reality of life in the wilderness. The simple fact that the People of Israel were nourished by the manna rendered many of the laws of Parshat Mishpatim irrelevant. The economic reality underlying the laws in the parshah became applicable only later, when the People of Israel entered the Land. The context of Parshat Mishpatim is obviously that of a people dwelling in its own land, leading a normal life, having servants and maidservants, cultivating fields and vineyards. Parshat Mishpatim seems like it was thrust into the middle of a continuous unit to which it is entirely unrelated.

Why, then, were these laws given such a prominent position, right after the revelation at Sinai?

The fundamental ideas of the Torah

The answer is implicit in the question, and the message is simple: After the exalted revelation at Sinai, the most important laws for the People of Israel to learn – before the laws of korbanot, before the laws of the Sanctuary, and even before “Shema Yisrael,” – are the most detailed and earthly matters, like how to treat one’s servant or one’s donkey.

In this sense, when G‑d says, “These are the ordinances that you shall set before them,”7 this is a profound statement: It is precisely these things that are the fundamental ideas of the Torah. In the world order established by the Torah, the momentous experience of the giving of the Torah is followed by something that is no less important: Parshat Mishpatim. To put them on equal footing may seem radical, but the Torah does exactly this – overtly and deliberately.

The question that now remains is more pointed, and it focuses on the reason behind the matter: Why is such great importance attached to this parshah?

One answer is that our lives, for better or for worse, do not take place in the Temple and do not revolve around the various daily korbanot. We live at home and in the marketplace, in the field and in the vineyard, with all the small details and problems that this life entails. Because this is the reality of our lives, these are the issues that the parshah deals with.

By their very nature, our lives entail all sorts of disturbances and problems, which is why the fundamental ideas of the Torah relate precisely to these aspects of life

It is no accident that the content of Parshat Mishpatim relates much more closely to the laws of Bava Kamma than to those of Bava Metzia. The parshah deals much more with man’s failings than with the legal aspects of the ordinary course of life. The parshah does not describe a pastoral, tranquil existence but an existence fraught with all sorts of troubles and problems: theft, violent crime, arguments, and confrontations. These are all unfortunate aspects of our lives as human beings. By their very nature, our lives entail all sorts of disturbances and problems, which is why the fundamental ideas of the Torah relate precisely to these aspects of life.

It says in the Talmud that the Torah was given with both general rules and specific details8. Indeed, the Torah can usually be divided into parts that deal with broad pronouncements of legal principles and parts that deal with how these principles play out in practice. But the truth is that although the Torah does devote much of its attention to larger questions, the basic principles of our belief system lie in the small details, and not in the few explicit articulations of our major tenets.

If our sages – whether in our own time or in previous generations – were charged with writing the Torah from scratch, it would no doubt include much more information on spirituality and the larger questions of life. However, the Torah is not built that way. In saying, “These are the ordinances that you shall set before them,”9 the Torah gives primacy to the details, leaving the exalted and lofty matters for certain special occasions and places. Why? Because the Torah itself is characterized by those same dry ordinances that deal with life’s details.

This basic characterization has implications in other areas as well and is crucial for understanding the whole orientation of the Jewish world. In a nutshell, Judaism takes the slogan, “the end justifies the means,” and turns it on its head. For us, the means justify the end. The detailed and minute laws are more important to us than the lofty aims.

All of Jewish life is built on the existence of finely delineated laws and instructions and with few clearly articulated lofty goals. The Torah repeatedly uses specific examples to emphasize the right thing to do in various situations, rarely including broad explanations of the theory behind the laws – those can be left for another time. As the Talmud says, “‘This day [you are] to do them’10, but only tomorrow will you receive their reward.”11 If a person wants to know why a law is a certain way, he will have to wait. He may have to wait 120 years, or perhaps 6,000 years – it does not matter, because that is not what the Torah and Jewish life are about.

Put differently, the Torah’s questions are “how” questions: How should one act in such a case? How does one fulfill this law? In contrast, questions of “why?” or “what for?” are not emphasized in the Torah and appear only rarely. The Torah deals with the method – the technique and the details by which things are done – but not nearly as much with the larger, teleological questions.

In a nutshell, Judaism takes the slogan, “the end justifies the means,” and turns it on its head

To be sure, from the Torah’s overall framework, which includes detailed laws as well as theoretical elements, we ultimately try to move from the details to the general principles, to infer the answers to the questions of “why” and “what for” as well. But in the Torah itself, there is only a long list of laws: “These are the ordinances.” The details, with all their subtleties and nuances, are the main focus of the Torah. Even when the laws are assigned a reason, an explicit rationale, this explanation appears only as an addendum to the main element, a mere afterthought.

Obviously, none of this is meant to criticize the Torah’s methodology or to take away from its majesty, but only to explain that the Torah sees things in a way that is often different from our usual way of thinking. The Torah is not a philosophical text that finds grandeur in metaphysical treatises. Rather, the Torah finds majesty precisely in the worldliness and in the details. At Sinai, we look up, toward the heavens above, toward the lofty, uplifting things. But immediately thereafter our view tilts downward, to the earthly, crude matter and, perhaps surprisingly, we are able to see holiness there as well.

In this respect, the revelation at Sinai and Parshat Mishpatim are actually one unit with two interconnected parts that deal with the same basic question: Where is majesty? Is it found in heaven alone, or perhaps elsewhere as well?

Where can G‑d be found?

In a certain respect, the contraction that manifests itself in Parshat Mishpatim exists in the nature of the world as well. In our lives, the most profound and uplifting things are found precisely in the mundane details of the daily routine.

However, in the Torah we find a more radical statement, one that is more extreme in its implications, regarding the profound question of where G‑d can be found. The Talmud says that “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, has no [place] in this world but the four cubits of halacha.”12 Leaving aside the question of whether “four cubits of halacha” refer to the beit midrash or if there is a broader meaning, this is still a radical statement. We are used to raising our eyes heavenward when speaking of G‑d, but the truth is that He is found in the small, insignificant, and seemingly unimportant minutiae of halacha.

Our world, with its insignificance, with all its problems, contains within it the model that reflects the most exalted matters of all. This is what our sages meant when they said, “Wherever you find the majesty of The Holy One, Blessed Be He, there you find His humility.”13 G‑d’s majesty can be found precisely in the small, earthly matters. The Talmud discusses the verse, “I dwell with the broken and the lowly in spirit,”14 explaining that G‑d does not raise up the broken person so that he may be with Him, but comes down to the broken person and resides together with him15.

This explains not only the question of the “four cubits of halacha” but also the question of the Temple. King Solomon mentions this problem in his prayer: “Will G‑d really dwell on earth? Even the heavens and highest heavens cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!.”16 But this is the essence of the Temple, where G‑d contracts Himself, as it were, into a limited space. G‑d does not reveal Himself in the wide open expanses of the outdoors; He wants to enter this small house. He abandons the heavens and goes to reside in the Temple, to engage with His people in the four cubits of halacha, to discuss what the law is if a person knocks out a Hebrew servant’s tooth, or if a person’s ox gores his neighbor’s cow.

Contrary to our expectations, the most exalted things can be found not above, but below

All of this leads to only one conclusion: Contrary to our expectations, the most exalted things can be found not above, but below. As we read in Psalms, “G‑d is exalted above all nations, His glory is upon the heavens. Who is like G‑d our Lord, who is enthroned on high, who sees what is below, in heaven and on earth?.”17 The other nations believe in G‑d as well, but they take the opposite perspective. They say that “G‑d is exalted above all nations” only when “His glory is upon the heavens.” For the other nations, G‑d’s dwelling place is in heaven, and He remains there. In contrast, Israel says, “Who is like G‑d our Lord, who is enthroned on high?” G‑d is higher than the nations think, higher than the heavens, and that is precisely why He “sees what is below, in heaven and on earth”; He can reveal Himself equally in heaven and on earth, even in the smallest earthly details.

After the exalted experience at Sinai, after the people look heavenward and see the thunder and the lightning and the smoke, comes the real revelation, the one that truly touches upon the most exalted of all. Parshat Mishpatim demonstrates that exaltedness may be found in all of its many esoteric details, details that transcend the generation of the wilderness to impact upon the most distant generations, even to this day.