This week we will be reading from Parashat Mishpatim. Mishpatim is the Torah portion that immediately follows Yitro, which tells us of the Matan Torah, the giving and receiving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. Yitro contains the most well-known set of mitzvot, the 10 Commandments. Mishpatim, on the other hand, according to rabbinic commentaries, contains 53 of the total 613 mitzvot found in the entire Torah.
As Rabbi Avi Billet wrote, “We have laws here that relate to owning servants or slaves (depending on how the word “eved” is translated and understood), murder, kidnapping, destroying someone else’s field with fire … and Shmittah. None of these seem relevant to their lives in the wilderness. And they don’t yet live in Israel, which will come with a set of mitzvot dependent on living in the land.”1
Unlike the 10 Commandments, Mishpatim is almost exclusively focused on the expectations and obligations placed upon the Israelites, once they occupy and settle the land of Israel. In this way, Mishpatim is more than just a random collection of mitzvot; instead is a document that expresses one of the most important Jewish values: hope.
The Israelites are still in the wilderness of Sinai. They do have the promise of redemption, but the promise has yet to be fulfilled. Nonetheless, they are presented with the expectations that will be placed upon them once they are fully redeemed. This means the Israelites have to believe that redemption is coming, otherwise, why the expectations?
This is why we keep fighting for a better tomorrow even in the darkest of days. Judaism lives both in the present, but also with an eye towards the future. Even as we struggle with the challenges of the pandemic, we prepare for a new kind of life afterwards, even if we do not know what exactly that future will look like. We continue to work to alleviate the suffering wrought by this plague, while also acknowledging that we can and should work to create systemic changes to the systems that failed in the first place. Admittedly, it can be a heavy burden at times, but no one said being Jewish was easy.
The 10 Commandments may have been the beginning of the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people, but the rest is up to us. That can be a hopeful sentiment indeed.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff