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Mishpatim 2001

This week’s Sedra, Mishpatim, meaning “laws and judgements” contains both civil and ritual laws that govern the relationships between G-d, man, and the inner self.

On one level, mishpatim is a code of law by which G-d had commanded the Children of Israel to live, following the deliverance from slavery into freedom. These laws govern all of our relationships. They include the rules about slaves; the treatment of the widow and the orphan; the treatment of strangers; the laws of kashrut; the observance of Passover, Shavuot, and Succot; and the morals of lending and theft. The sedra also describes the punishment for the offences and the deliverance of justice.

On a deeper level, I believe that the laws are concerned with the development of spiritual freedom, the value and uniqueness of the individual and his ability to express his selfhood.

I can see reflections of the process of the Exodus, the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Mishpatim,  in my counselling work – a process whereby a person, through therapy, wishes to release themselves from their “slavery” in order to act and express themselves.

We read last week that the Children of Israel had been given the Ten Commandments by God at Mount Sinai and next week they are commanded to build the Sanctuary.

The Sedra begins with the words, “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them” The “And” being the conjunction which connects these ordinary laws with the holiness of the previous Ten Commandments

These judgements or laws are therefore a detailed expansion of the basic Ten Commandments upon which not only Judaism is based but also most law systems of western civilisation.  In Jewish law, ritual and civil law are intertwined, for example, the Temple and the Cour-t should be on Temple Mount, both  of which  are expressions of holiness and worship of God. Hence the positioning of what seem mundane laws and rituals between the dramatic story of the Exodus and the commandment to build the Holy Sanctuary.  The intertwining of civil and ritual laws, again tells us that every area of our life is seen as an expression of G-d’s holiness.

The judgements can be expressed in the form of mitzvoth, that is;

  •  ritual mitzvoth (bein adam le makrom) between man and G-d, eg kashrut, Shabbat,   ethical mitzvoth (bein adam le khavero) between man and man,  eg. laws concerning covetousness
  • and (bein adam le atzma ) between man and his inner self, that is , his conscience.

These three forms of mitzvoth or relationships, I believe are very important, especially, when examined against the background of freedom and slavery.  How far is one free and/or willing to perform them under the different conditions?  For instance, in the most extreme situation, within the concentration camp, Jews would have been unable to perform ritual mitzvoth, and because of the intended dehumanisation of the individual, and destruction of any common code of behaviour, where survival was constantly threatened, mitzvoth between man and man was difficult.  In those circumstances, a man might have used the mitzvoth Bein adam le atzma , between man and his inner self, as a possible tool for survival by attempting to maintain his self-respect. It was one way of creating his own spiritual freedom within his oppression.

Another example, which comes to mind, is the Marranos Jews, who were forced to convert at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, to Christianity.  Outwardly, they professed to be Christians, but in secrecy and in their hearts they still performed the ritual mitzvoth, which gave them their spiritual freedom and enabled them to survive to this day.

The laws in this sedra are very detailed and provide a structure upon which relationships can be built .The attention to the minutest details of every day life emphasises the significance and dignity of each human being. The Torah provides a framework  for living and within which man can exercise free will and choice. It is left to us to spin the finer details of our relationships which hopefully will foster the respect and love necessary for the development of emotional and personal relationships.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book “Celebrating Life” says:

“G-d was always there.  Humanity was not…….. the discovery that we are persons with significance and dignity was far from obvious.  It was a relatively late achievement in human civilization and surely, the most important, for it contained the seeds of much else: the sanctity of life, respect for persons, the free society, and recognition of human rights.


Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says,  “Freedom is the ability of man to act and express selfhood”

Establishing  rules can create an  environment where true freedom can germinate. Paradoxically to enjoy a measure of freedom we need to know the limitations.  We need to know what is permissible and what is not.  We need to know how far we can go. G-d intended us to have free will and choice “ in his own image” It is interesting that  Adam and Eve, in disobeying G-d, and  in eating from the Tree of Knowledge, broke the first boundaries that G-d set.  G-d marked the occasion by throwing them out of the Garden of Eden and committed them to having to make choices from that moment on and to experience  the consequences of their actions.

 Two examples come to mind of how the use of limitations can build up or destroy one’s sense of self and sense of freedom. One is the growth and development of the human baby  - where his growing sense of self corresponds to his gradual separation and independence from the mother. The baby becomes conscious of himself and his ability to  act independently.  Conversely, solitary confinement can be used to breakdown a person’s sense of self by confining a man to one place and removing the frameworks of communication and contact with other human beings. Hence, the boundaries of the self become blurred and challenge his hold on his sense of self and can produce feelings of chaos and madness.

 Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in an article  called “ A Slavery Called Freedom“ says “Slavery is a condition wherein one is forced to act according to the will of another.”      But if we come back to our mitzvoth, particularly ‘bein adam le atzmo’, it is  possible to remain spiritually free in physical slavery or conversely, we can  be spiritually enslaved in physical freedom , for example in dealing with our personal problems.

It is our duty  and a mitzvah to use our freedom, to use our human potential, to improve ourselves, be creative, and enjoy living..  As I understand it, in Judaism we believe that G-d created us as imperfect beings and part of our purpose in life, is to improve ourselves, by the performance of mitzvoth.  It is about engaging in the world, developing ourselves and participating in life with a view to always improving our levels of spirituality.

If we return to the beginning of the sedra we read that a Hebrew slave may be released, after 7 years, in the sabbatical year.  If he refuses to go and wishes to stay with his master, he is punished – with his ear bored with an awl against the door  - the door symbolises the freedom he has refused.  The punishment takes place against the door because the slave is symbolically refusing the freedom G-d gave the Jews when he passed over the houses to smite the firstborn in Egypt..   The   Jew who prefers to be a servant of a human master has rejected G-d and the lesson of the doorpost in the Exodus.  In contrast, in Hammurabi law, the codification of Babylonian law during the reign of King Hammurabi 1945 – 1902 BCE,  having his ear bored with an awl punishes a slave who wishes to leave his master.  The whole point of remembering the Exodus  is  to remind ourselves that we must not be enslaved and  that it is our duty to exercise of our free will.  Freedom of choice is a cornerstone of Jewish spirituality

Therefore in order for a man to act independently he must want to express his uniqueness.  So someone who has no desire for independent self expression and fulfilment cannot be considered a “free man”.

Each individual is unique because he is said to be created “in the image of G-d” .

Chief Rabbi Sacks in his book says“In finding G-d, our ancestors found themselves.  Discovering G-d, singular and alone, they found the human person, singular and alone.” 

This is a possible reason why the  sedra begins  with rules  about the Hebrew slave,  a man, who may have been considered to have the least of human rights  - to show that all men are equally as holy, whether King or slave.  Treatment of the individual is as closely regulated by the Torah as is the procedure for holy rituals such as Temple services, or the building of the Temple or Succah.

The law of taliation, that is the principle of just restitution  and damages,  is based on the famous passage;

“an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a would for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.”

Once again this law reflects  the Jewish attitude to  the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of life.. This law is recognised as one the most far-reaching steps in human progress. .It has been the source of much misunderstanding and used to prove ethnic vengefulness in the old Testament.  In fact it’s purpose is quite the opposite.  It is supposed to limit vengeance and can be seen in sharp contrast to the Hammurabi Code.   Within the Hammurabi Code, the value of human life is slight and punishment involved mutilation of eyes, ears, tongues, hands, etc. The law of taliation in Mishpatim has been interpreted to mean monetary compensation except for murder.  The rabbis have argued that  the punishments  should not been taken literally but that they are to be understood as a monetary punishment.

The moment of the Exodus was when the children of Israel were delivered from slavery to freedom.  What did this mean to them?  Was it a spiritual experience to become free men ?  Was this the moment when they were able  to act and express their selfhood?  Had their condition become so intolerable that their cry was heard? Abraham Twerski,   a rabbi, and  eminent psychiatrist, in his writings on the connection between slavery and addiction,  says, that the hardest step to take in recovery, is to ask for help.In the case of the Children of Israel, to cry out to G-d for deliverance when slavery became unbearable,   was the action of  free men  and expresses their desire to be free.  This reaching out requires faith that someone will hear you and respond. Their route to freedom was heralded by the significant moment of their cry .The Israelites left the familiarity of their slavery  and found themselves in freedom in the wilderness.  If this test  of faith was not enough, Twerski says that their basic belief (emunah) needed to be tested before they could receive the Torah. They experienced this through the miracle of the manna, that

G-d would provide  exactly the right amount. They were dependent on

G-d and the limits he set in relation to the manna.  Commentators say that without this belief, the Israelites could not have been expected to obey the commandments against stealing, swearing falsely, taking usury, coveting other’s belongings and all the mitzvoth relating to property rights – all of which are dealt with in mishpatim. 

So, at the end of sedra when Moses repeats the rules to the Israelites who respond “with one voice” and say

“All the words that Hashem has spoken we will do”. The Israelites have experienced two acts of faith, when G-d heard their cry to be delivered from slavery and the receiving the Manna in the wilderness.  This prepared them to accept the laws and this response to agree to obey them were the words or “free” men . This brings us back to the beginning of the sedra and the setting of the slave free and the importance of his desire to serve g-d as a free man than be a slave to the will of another man. 

Moses then makes the Covenant with G-d and then the people say,

 “Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will obey!

 This is initially about utmost submission to God and a declaration of faith and trust in Him.  Commentaries question “doing” before “listening” and so these words can be interpreted in various ways.  It is interesting that as “free men” just out of Egypt they are prepared to be “obedient” to a new master before listening and finding out why.  The forty years  in the desert becomes the time for listening and shaking off the slave mentality, and the birth of a new generation who will not carry the direct experience of enslavement with them,  but the memory as we are reminded to and which will lead them to the Promised Land.

As I thought about Mishpatim  it has struck me that  the themes slavery and freedom  underscore the philosophy of my counselling work. My role is to enable a client to engage in a process in which they can express the desire to be released from the condition which enslaves them so that they can be free to make choices in this world.  I am helping them to  have the ability to act and express selfhood  To a certain degree we are all slaves to more or less subtle masters in our everyday lives but our degree of freedom is dependent on our ability to recognise when things are going wrong and taking steps to address our problems. 

The  consulting room becomes the wilderness, after a client takes the initial step in his Exodus.  In order to progress, the client needs to have faith in the process, trust in the therapist, and the limitations of the relationship are set..  Then the work begins – the client and the therapist spend forty years in the wilderness, re-examining  structures  of the client’s world until he or she is ready to move on.  It has become a place for reinvention and  for the discovery of  parts of their self that have  perhaps been hidden to consciousness and therefore unexpressed.  I consider therapy, therefore is a holy act, bringing home the exiled parts, making the self whole and enabling an individual to set himself free.  “Thus a person who is cognizant of his or her uniqueness and individuality can never be enslaved” Steinsaltz 

I believe that the giving of this dvar torah in celebration of my birthday is an act of freedom and an expression of my selfhood. For me it has been about exploring the “listening” I have experienced it as a spiritual journey, a time of renewal and reinvention and the start of a deeper  understanding of what is written in the Torah.

  I believe that there is a strong overlap between the spiritual and therapeutic worlds, both believing in the  expression and integration of the soul. Both are about awakening the soul and freeing it from a restricted, rigid and seemingly safe place in which it may have lived.  It is about giving oneself permission and freedom to question and explore our heritage, conquering fear, – finding a place of freedom.




              THE  SEDRA   MISHPATIM


                            Given on

                   24th February,  2001


I  dedicate this D’var Torah to the memory of our friend,

the late, Susanne Greenstein. 24.02.01.

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