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The Covenant of Justice

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein







The Covenant of Justice

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The location of parashat Mishpatim seems curious, for two reasons. Firstly, parashat Yitro seems to flow naturally into parashat Teruma, and it is unclear why parashat Mishpatim intrudes in the middle.  Parashat Yitro concludes with the laws pertaining to the altar: “You shall make Me an earthen altar … and if you make Me an altar of stones … you shall not ascend My altar with steps.” Hence, the logical continuation would seem to be found in parashat Teruma, which deals with the construction of the altar and of the Mishkan.


Secondly, the Gemara (Keritut 9a) teaches that Am Yisrael enters into a covenant with God through circumcision, immersion, and the sprinkling of blood. The sprinkling of the blood takes place within the framework of the “covenant of the basins,” described further on in our parasha (chapter 24). Hence, this event is an integral part of the ceremony marking the forging of the covenant between God and Am Yisrael at Mount Sinai. Why, then, does the Torah “cut” the Sinai experience in two, inserting the monetary laws of parashat Mishpatim in between?


In the Mekhilta (Yitro, Massekhta de-Chodesh, parasha 3) the Tannaim are divided as to whether the covenant of the basins took place prior to the giving of the Torah or afterwards, and Rashi and Ramban correspondingly hold contrary views. If we adopt the view maintaining that the events appear in the Torah in their chronological order, such that the covenant of the basins came after the giving of the Torah, our question becomes particularly perplexing, since it concerns not only the order of the events as presented in the Torah, but also their actual order in reality: for what reason did God choose to convey the “mishpatim” – “judgments” or social laws – specifically in the middle of the revelation at Sinai, before the covenant with Am Yisrael was even completed?


In order to answer these questions we must consider the importance of the “mishpatim.” Seemingly, monetary laws are a universal realm that pertains to every human society in the world, and not a matter that is particular to Am Yisrael.


Indeed, “dinim” represent one of the seven Noahide laws. The Rishonim debate what this obligation involves. Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:14) understands this as a requirement for all nations to establish local courts for judging people with regard to the other six laws. To his view, then, this is not an independent command, but rather a means for enforcing the other six laws.


However, Ramban disagrees with the Rambam, and writes (in his commentary on Bereishit 34:13):


To my view, the “dinim” incumbent upon the gentiles, as one of their seven commandments, require more than just the appointment of judges in each and every place. [God] commands them concerning the laws of theft, deception, oppression, and paying wages, and the laws pertaining to guardians, coercion and temptation, and the categories of damages, and injury to others, and the laws of lending and borrowing, and the laws of buying and selling, and the suchlike, like the laws which Israel is commanded to observe….


Ramban maintains that the commandment of “dinim” corresponds more or less to the “mishpatim” required of Am Yisrael. His explanation highlights the status of the “mishpatim” as a realm pertaining not only to Am Yisrael.


However, there remains a significant difference between the “mishpatim” of Am Yisrael and the laws of the other nations. This difference is reflected in various ways on the halakhic level: as Rambam notes (ibid.), in contrast to the laws governing a Jewish court, a gentile who has committed some transgression may be given the death penalty even by a single judge, on the basis of testimony by a single witness, and without prior warning concerning his actions. However, the difference is primarily one of principle. When Am Yisrael reached Mara after leaving Egypt, we read, “there He made for him a statute and a judgment” (Shemot 15:25). Rashi explains that the reference here is to the laws of Shabbat, the red heifer, and “dinim.” This raises the question: Shabbat and the red heifer may have been innovations at this point, with no parallel among the other nations, but “dinim” had already been conveyed to the sons of Noah. Why, then, was it necessary at this point for God to command Am Yisrael once again in their regard?


There would seem to be a fundamental difference between the value of “mishpatim” among the nations of the world and their status among Am Yisrael. King David formulated this difference in extreme terms:


He utters His words to Yaakov, His statutes and His judgments to Israel; He did not do thus to every nation, and did not make judgments known to them. (Tehillim 147:19-20)


God gave Israel His statutes and judgments – and He did not do so to the other nations. The “mishpatim” (judgments) express a unique bond between Am Yisrael and God, unlike the “dinim” given to the nations of the world, whose purpose is merely to create an orderly society.


In light of the above we can understand why parashat Mishpatim is located in the midst of the description of the revelation at Sinai. The “mishpatim” are a precondition for receiving the Torah. Am Yisrael obligates itself to maintain an ongoing connection with God through the observance of the “mishpatim.” This undertaking is an inseparable part of the Sinai experience and of the covenant forged there between Am Yisrael and God. For Am Yisrael, the “mishpatim” are not merely a formal matter, or a technical device for maintaining social order. They are the rules that dictate the moral attitude of one person towards another and towards society at large, and they inculcate fundamental behavioral values.


The midrash addresses this message specifically to leaders:


“But he who takes gifts overthrows [the land]” (Mishlei 29:4) – This refers to a sages who knows laws and midrash and aggada, but when an orphan and an orphan come to him to judge their dispute, he says to them: “I am busy with my studying, and I am not available.” Concerning him God says, “I regard you as though you had destroyed the world.” (Shemot Rabba 30:13)


Involvement in “mishpatim” – the practical social laws – is of such vital significance that one who avoids this realm is considered as having destroyed the world. A spiritual leader must not only be a great scholar; he must also be aware of the problems facing the people, he must engage in charity and kindness, and ensure the application of morality and justice.


At times the religious public in Israel tends to view the values of morality and charity as universal ideals that do not pertain in any special way to the Jewish nation. As a result, protection of these values is regarded as a mitzva that may be left to others to perform, while attention is focused on protecting those values that are unique to Am Yisrael. Hence it is usually the secular public, for whom such matters of Shabbat and kashrut are not of crucial importance, who raise an outcry every time there is injustice, injury to human rights, etc. The secular public is therefore depicted as a more moral, more humanitarian camp. The religious public, in contrast, makes a fuss only when its own special values are under attack.


This perception is mistaken. The values of morality, justice, and charity are certainly relevant to all the nations of the world, but they still have special and unique significance for Am Yisrael, insofar as they express the unique relationship between the nation and God throughout the generations. Therefore, the protection, promotion and inculcation of these values should not be neglected and left to other groups to carry out.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Mishpatim 5753 [1993].)