Parshat Mishpatim: From Matan Torah to Social Justice

What comes after Matan Torah, the spiritual experience of Divine revelation? It is somewhat surprising that what follows is parshat Mishpatim, which contains many laws (“mishpatim”) based on rational and intellectual reasoning for a just and well-run society. Why do these laws, which should come naturally to all societies, follow the unique and miraculous experience of Matan Torah?

This question is reinforced by Rashi who teaches that these laws were also given at Sinai. Rashi’s comment is based on the midrashic teaching that the word ואלה, “and these,” comes to add something to what came previously. Why is it necessary to say these laws (such as damages, murder, theft, kind treatment of the poor, strangers and widows) were also given by God at Sinai? This highlights a deep connection between the awe-inspiring experience of Matan Torah and the basic justice which should make up the fabric of society. The Lubavitcher Rebbe provides another perspective. The Rebbe explains that other nations may come to these laws through intellectual reasoning. However, the only way to ensure true justice will be carried out is if it flows from the Torah and our recognition that “mishpat,” societal justice, is based on faith and is part of the Sinai experience as well. 

Another possible explanation: One can’t separate spiritual devotion to Torah and God from advocating for justice in society. Mishpatim – the imperative to protect the weak and vulnerable – is the direct continuation of the revelation at Sinai. This synthesis can be seen in the work of Rabbi Simcha Krauss z”l, who passed away last week. His dedication to finding resolutions for the plight of agunot was a model of seeking mishpat which flows from and is the essence of Torah. יהי זכרו ברוך. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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