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Parshah Overview: Mishpatim

by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky

The Rebbe's Chumash

  

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The sequence of events covered in parashat Mishpatim appears quite confusing. In parashat Yitro, the Torah recounted all the preparations for the Giving of the Torah up to halfway through the 4th of Sivan, omitted the events of the rest of the fourth and fifth days and continued with the account of the Giving of the Torah on the sixth day of the month. Then, without even mentioning that God told Moses to ascend Mount Sinai again after the Giving of the Torah to learn the details of the law, the Torah proceeds to articulate these details in the beginning of parashat Mishpatim. After giving these laws and recording God’s promise to protect and assist the people in their conquest of the Canaanite nations,1 parashat Mishpatim backtracks to the build up to the Giving of the Torah. It describes the preparations of the fourth day and the fifth day of Sivan (which were mysteriously omitted in parashat Yitro), briefly recapitulates the Giving of the Torah, and describes Moses’ ascent afterward to learn the details of the law (which also was mysteriously omitted from either the end of parashat Yitro or the beginning of parashat Mishpatim). This puzzling and ambiguous sequence demands an explanation, for the Torah only deviates from the chronological description of events when there is good reason to do so.

In rearranging the narrative, the Torah accentuates the dual effect of the revelation at Sinai. As we have mentioned previously, the Torah is God’s guide to living, but it is also much more than that. As alluded to in the opening word of the Ten Commandments,2 God declares that “I have written and bestowed My very soul in the Torah”; He implanted His essence within us when He gave us the Torah. Thus, giving the Torah established a double connection between God and the Jewish people: a contractual agreement based on commandments, compliance, reward, and punishment, and a covenantal bond transcending the parameters of behavior and forging an inviolable, eternal bond between God and His people. The contractual agreement was expressed through God’s commandments and our acceptance of them; the covenantal bond was expressed through the rituals and rites surrounding the revelation.

God declares that "I have written and bestowed My very soul in the Torah"; He implanted His essence within us when He gave us the Torah
To help us recognize this distinction, the Torah describes these two types of relationship separately. The account of the Giving of the Torah in parashat Yitro opens with a general prelude, on the second day of Sivan, encompassing both of these aspects,3 and then deals exclusively with the contractual agreement. In discussing the preparations for the revelation, it focuses on the directives that God gave the people to ready themselves for it, and its description of the revelation comprises solely the instructions God gave the people—the Ten Commandments and the commandments that constitute their direct follow-through.4 Following the revelation, the Torah continues with the commandments principally governing civil law, in order to demonstrate how God’s law is to permeate and determine even the seemingly logical conventions of a just society. This continuation forms the first and greater part of parashat Mishpatim.5

From that point on, parashat Mishpatim returns to the preparations for the Giving of the Torah, this time focusing on the covenantal bond between God and the Israelites, through which the nation was granted its unique identity as God’s holy people. It describes the people’s preparations to enter into the covenant: how they accepted the Torah unconditionally by proclaiming “we will do and we will obey”; how Moses wrote down the “Book of the Covenant”; how God had them build an altar, offer sacrifices, and had Moses sprinkle them with “the blood of the covenant.” Tellingly, this parashah places great emphasis on ascending the mountain,6 for the focus here is the covenant, through which the Jewish people rose spiritually and connected to God. This conspicuous emphasis on ascent also reflects the second element of the bond between God and the people on the cosmic level, the empowerment of the world to draw nearer to God.

Footnotes

  • 1. Nachmanides understands this narrative with its warning concerning idolatry to be the culmination of the earlier laws.
  • 2. See on Exodus 20:2.
  • 3. See on Exodus 19:5.
  • 4. The verse that introduces these commandments (20:19) reads: “You have seen that I spoke with you from heaven, [therefore] you shall not make [a representation of anything that is] with Me.”
  • 5. I.e., until the end of chapter 23.
  • 6. 6. 24:1, 9, 12, 13, 15, 18.

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
Rashi
Acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105). Legendary French scholar who authored the fundemental and widely accepted "Rashi commentary" on the entire Bible and Talmud.
Rebbe
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
Lubavitcher
One who follows the teachings of the Chassidic group which was formerly based in the Belarus village of Lubavitch. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York with branches worldwide. The Lubavitch movement is also widely known as "Chabad."
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Sivan
The third month on the Jewish calendar, normally corresponding to May-June. This month features the holiday of Shavuot.
Midrash
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.