Mishpatim- Decisions and Consequences by Jessie Rubenstein
This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, is full of various and sundry laws, thus giving the parsha its name. Mishpatim occurs at an interesting time in our people’s history. We are a free people, having escaped from slavery 15 chapters ago. We are in the desert, at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have been given the aseret ha-dibrot, the ten utterances, more commonly called the ten commandments. And now, God, through the mouth of Moses, is imparting more laws, rules, and regulations to us.
The laws in this parsha span a wide range: from the treatment of slaves to the treatment of your enemies animals to laws about forced miscarriage to dietary restrictions, Mishpatim runs the gamut of strange, esoteric, unrelated commands. We as a people stand at the base of the Mountain, and listen.
The Torah reads:
“Moses went and repeated to the people all the
commands of Adonai and all the rules;; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that Adonai has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down all the commands of Adonai. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to Adonai. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against
the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do!” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that Adonai now makes with you concerning all these commands.”
I want to focus on the way that the people of Israel react to this laundry list of laws. When Moses repeats these laws to the people, they answer in one voice, affirming their desire as a community to follow the laws of God. This may be the first and last time we as a Jewish community have ever agreed on anything “in one voice”! Moses then repeats these laws, and once again we agree to them, even more enthusiastically than the last time.
Why did Moses repeat the laws to the people? And why is this even mentioned? The Torah uses sparse language. Nothing that is not needed for the development of the narrative is included, and many things that we wish were included are not. The economy of the Torah’s language is such that, in the entirety of the Torah, and even into the Tanakh, we only see one instance of the word “to love” being used in the feminine. This obviously doesn’t mean that women didn’t love people, but is rather an example of how the Torah is cautious with the use of words. So why, then, does the Torah take up the space with this seemingly unnecessary repetition?
I believe we have many examples in our lives of why. Who among us has deleted an important document accidently? Or sent an email “reply all” instead of “reply”? Or responded yes to an invitation, only to double book the time? The Torah, through this repetition, tells us to be deliberate in our actions and words. Moses, and God, do not want to rely on a snap judgement made by the people on the spot.
The fact that the Torah says that we answered “in one voice” may have concerned Moses. There are many, many laws given by God at this time. Perhaps he was worried that our enthusiasm meant that we had not really heard. Were we, the people, swept up in the moment? Did we reply in the affirmative because we wanted to do so, or because we were unaware of what we were saying yes to? Moses behaves in the manner of a good leader. He says, “are you sure this is what you want?”
When we reaffirmed our desire to obey the commands of God, even more enthusiastically than the last time, Moses sealed the covenant. This small part of the parsha teaches us to be aware of our decisions, and to make sure that we can honor our commitments. We learn to make choices based on as much information as possible, and to make the best ones for ourselves, our families, and our communities. How many situations can you think of where taking a second look, making a more informed decision, or pausing before answering could have avoided a big mistake?
We as a people are encouraged to choose. We are commanded to wrestle with our choices, and to be faithful to the decisions we make. May we be guided by the Torah to make good choices, and may the fruits of our decisions be the ones we were hoping for. Shabbat shalom.