After the Revelation at Sinai, after the giving of the Ten Commandments, after the thunder and lightning and the mountain covered in a cloud of smoke — what could possibly come next? What could follow that spectacular event?
Rules and regulations: ordinary, mundane, everyday rules about how to live in a society.
The contrast between last week’s portion, Yitro, full of lofty principles accompanied by fireworks, and this week’s portion, Mishpatim — laws on property and damages and personal injury — is almost too extreme. One moment is filled with drama and divine majesty and the next seems like the ancient equivalent of traffic ordinances. At first glance, all those mishpatim, “rules” that Moses is instructed to set before the Israelite people, seem so ordinary, not the stuff of divine pronouncements. But upon reading them carefully, we find that they are the beginning of a legal structure that will uphold this society.
No society can live on lofty principles alone; society needs rules and standards to regulate commerce and other interactions; it needs limits to restrict baser human instincts; and it needs a system to adjudicate disputes. Mishpatim takes us down from the mountain to the presentation of laws that will guide and govern.
The laws set out are not presented systematically, but rather are arranged by analogy and association. They are not divided neatly into categories we might impose upon them. The laws come out of a context of other law codes of the ancient Near East, but they differ in source and content. In his book, “A Commentary on the Book of Exodus,” Umberto Cassuto tells us: “When we come to compare the Pentateuchal statutes with those of neighboring peoples, we must not forget … the difference in character between them: The laws of the neighboring peoples were not decreed on behalf of the gods, but on behalf of the kings; whereas the laws of the Torah were not promulgated in the name of the monarchy, nor even in the name of Moses as the leader of Israel, but are religious and ethical instructions in judicial matters ordained in the name of the God of Israel.”
Throughout the portion, there are reminders that these are not simply civil and criminal laws established by a governmental authority. For example, we find the command: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is repeated in the following chapter: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The instruction to be empathetic is a moral lesson, not an ordinary regulation. The former slaves at Sinai could understand it easily, but it is intended as a principle for future generations as well. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has written: “The Torah itself is, in part, a book of law, presenting the Jewish conviction that the will of God is translated into action through law.”
We all want to live in a society that respects the rule of law. We do not want rules to be absent or arbitrary; we want to know the guidelines by which we and our neighbors can and should function. Some of these guidelines are large principles like the Ten Commandments, and some are rules and regulations instructing us to return lost property or make restitution for damages we caused or let the land lie fallow in the sabbatical year. We need both: the overriding principles and the day-to-day regulations. After the spectacle at Mount Sinai, we can settle down for some law and order.
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Ill. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.