Former Shaliach in Atlanta
Parshat Mishpatim is primarily concerned with mitzvot which regulate our social framework – namely, the mitzvot she’bein adam l’chavero (interpersonal mitzvot). Interestingly, this parsha follows Matan Torah – with its mitzvot she’bein adam l’Makom (mitzvotwhich are between man and Hashem).
Our task is to achieve a proper balance between these two types of mitzvot. Rashi cites Chazal:
“‘And these (v’eleh) are the ordinances (mishpatim)’ – Wherever it says ‘these’ (eleh) it negated that which has been stated previously. ‘And these’ (v’eleh) it adds to what has been stated previously. Just as those which have been stated previously [i.e. the Ten Commandments] are from Sinai, so too, these are from Sinai.” (Rashi, Shmot 21:1)
Chazal want to teach us that we must treat the nuances of Parshat Mishpatim’s seemingly mundane and everyday mitzvot with the same emotional fervor with which we relate to the Ten Commandments.
The Gemara (BT Bava Kama 30a) states:
“Rav Yehudah said, ‘One who wishes to be devout should fulfill the words of [Masechet] Nezikin.’”
We might have thought that extra piety can only be derived from focusing on our relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. However, according to Rav Yehudah, nezikin (torts) – i.e. interpersonal relations – is the true measure of a person’s piousness.
The Sfat Emet expounds on a pasuk:
“Hashem will give strength to His nation; Hashem will bless His nation with peace.” (Tehilim 29:11)
The Midrash explains that “Hashem will give strength to His nation” is the Torah, and “Hashem will bless His nation with peace” are the mishpatim. The Sfat Emet notes that we received the Ten Commandments at Sinai directly from Hashem. In contrast, the Torah stresses:
“And these are the ordinances (mishpatim) that you shall set before them.” (Shmot 21:1)
We are required to establish a justice system which will regulate the social fabric of our lives. Our sages and judges – not Hashem – are the ones who are charged with enacting social laws based on society’s needs and abilities. Thus, one would be likely to treat Hashem’s words with greater respect and commitment than one accords the laws established by men. In other words, one is likely to achieve extreme piety in one’s relationship with Hashem, while paying scant heed to one’s fellow man. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes that both aspects come from HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Moreover, the Sfat Emet continues, the fact that Chazal and the beit din have the power and authority to issue rulings at their own discretion is a “Divine gift”. Indeed, human judgment does not detract from a matter’s divine nature. Hence, “Hashem will bless His nation with peace,” because true peace indicates that one has achieved a balance between every aspect of life.
The Midrash (Tana Devei Eliyahu 1) famously teaches:
“Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah.” (Loosely, “ethical and moral conduct precedes the Torah.”)
Conventional wisdom holds that this expression is to be interpreted chronologically: Only after one studies proper social behavior can one begin to learn Torah. However, the Sfat Emet extends this idea. According to the Sfat Emet, the Torah and derech eretzare connected on a deep and fundamental level. The quality of one’s Torah learning directly corresponds to the amount of energy and effort one dedicates to bettering society and derech eretz.
In conclusion, a true oved Hashem is one who devotes equal attention to both the mitzvot she’bein adam l’Makom and themitzvot she’bein adam l’chavero.