In his “Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare describes how a person’s own flesh and blood may serve as security for a loan. Apart from the desire to disparage the morality of the Jews, it seems that indeed the possibility of using one’s own body as collateral for a loan might have been a prevalent practice among the Jews of the Middle Ages. Parashat Mishpatim deals with mishpatim – laws, statutes – and marks the birth of the Jewish legal system. While Parashat Yitro introduces the workings of the judiciary, it is inParashat Mishpatim that we encounter the body of the law.
The opening verse of the parashah states: “And these are the statutes that you must place before them: If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years, and in the seventh he must go free” (Shemot 21:1, 2). Why did the Torah choose to open the entire section dealing with the legal system specifically with the laws of the Hebrew slave? Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 30) explains that the Torah presents us with the contrast between the slave who fears his human master for a temporary six years, and the Jew who is to fear the Master of the Universe for eternity.
The Midrash bases this explanation on the verse “The fear of God is pure; it stands forever” (Tehillim19:10). This also answers the question as to why the Torah includes so many laws from the contractual, monetary, and legal realms when these are spheres wherein human society may very simply legislate based solely on intellectual analysis and collective consensus. The Torah teaches that our conduct in the realms of our responsibility and liability to others indicates one’s character, and thus the Gemara (Bava Kamma 30a) states that if one desires to become a Chasid (“righteous individual”) he should study the laws of Nezikin(“Damages”) which deals with one’s financial liability should he harm his fellow’s person or property.
The ‘secular’ realms of Jewish jurisprudence do not result from man’s activity as legislator in the various courts of law established in each society. The laws governing man’s position within society stem from Mount Sinai, from man’s reverence for God and His law – as derived from the verse in Tehillim. Thus these social regulations are binding on the Jew for eternity, just as God, the Lawgiver, is eternal. There is, I believe, another source for the eternity of the legislature.
Our parashah is replete with laws that are not stated in general terms, but are recorded in precise detail, with a chronicle of each and every law and all its minutiae. The Mishnah and Gemara are compiled in a similar manner – individual cases are discussed, each case with its various details and relevant examples. Why are our legal sources documented in such a manner? There is a particular responsum of the Radvaz that will aid us in understanding this. The Radvaz was asked whether a person must save his fellow if this act involves severing his own finger. The Radvaz establishes that despite the fact one may not be obligated to maim himself in order to save a fellow Jew -for the Halachah forbids causing any damage to one’s body – lifnim mi-shurat ha-din (“inside the line of the law,” i.e. to do more that the letter of the law) one may maim himself.
This remained a hypothetical question through many generations, giving us an indication of the difficulties encountered by Jews throughout our history, yet in our contemporary times it became relevant regarding the requirement to donate organs in order to save a life. While this act may not be required by the letter of the law, there is general agreement among the sages that this is an act of righteousness lifnim mi-shurat ha-din. Obviously, the modern questions of organ transplants did not exist in the period of the Gemara, yet it is here we observe the Divine hand that guides the Halachah. Secular law, legislated because of contemporary consensus, cannot foresee the developments of the future. As new realities arise so the courts must address them, pioneering new approaches, which will be moderated and adjusted by other, courts and even by governmental legislation with the passage of time. The Halachah has the tools -existing from the moment of its inception by God, contained within the seemingly superfluous examples and minutiae – to deal with every reality. The Halachah, which moves forward in a straight line from thousand of years ago, has the ability to navigate even the stormiest waters of the modern reality; thus, fear of God and His law is truly eternal.