The Covenant of Justice
STUDENT SUMMARIES OF SICHOT OF THE ROSHEI YESHIVA
SICHA OF HARAV
The Covenant of Justice
Summarized by Matan Glidai
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
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
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
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
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 .)