Former Shaliach in Greater Washington
In Avot Derabi Natan, when speaking of the time when Rabbi Akiva started to learn Torah, it describes the order in which he started learning. Following learning to read and write, it says that he started to learn the Torah. But when he started to learn, it says he learned Sefer Vayikra. The reason behind this is believed to be due to the fact that most of the Mitzvot do not appear in Sefer Bereshit or Shmot. Rather it is within these books, that we track Am Yisrael’s development into a society governed by the laws of the Torah.
Our Parsha comes at a very special time for our nation. Am Yisrael has just witnessed Ma’amad Har Sinai. Although Am Yisrael was in the midst of an era filled with miracles, and unique and special experiences, this revelation exceeded any experience and any miracles that they had witnessed so far, such that Am Yisrael could not cope and had to ask Moshe to speak to them instead of Hashem.
It was on this occasion, when Am Yisrael was at its spiritual peak that the Torah was given to us. It is at this specific moment, a moment of spiritual high, miracles and experiences of facing Hashem that Am Yisrael has to deal with the rules and laws of every day life. These two must be connected. The spiritual high of Am Yisrael is connected with the laws and rules of the society. Without one the other cannot exist.
Parashat Yitro and Parashat Mishpatim are a changing point for Am Yisrael, the legal system was changed and laws of our society were set. In Parashat Yitro, Yitro observes how the legal system was working at the time – a one man job. Am Yisrael would come to Moshe to get answers for questions, or for judgment between people. Yitro could see that such a system would not be able to run efficiently in the long run. So together with Moshe, they set up the system of the 70 elders, who were to help Moshe carry out this task. Only the most difficult questions, which no other individual could answer, would come before Moshe.
Once the legal system was set, we were given the Torah – the rules and laws for our society – the Halacha. We know that the Mitzvot are divided into categories, Mitzvot between Man and G-d, and Mitzvot between Man and Man. The Rambam makes another division, between Mitzvot that we know what their purpose is, and between Mitzvot that we are unable to understand or grasp their purpose. One could have expected that after Ma’amad Har Sinai and the receiving of the Torah, the first rules that would be given would be between Man and G-d, the ones that we cannot really understand or grasp. But if we look at the laws that were given to us in Parashat Mishpatim, they start with the laws of slaves and how they should be treated, followed by the laws of damages, the laws of the different Shomrim (guards) and so on and so forth – Mitzvot that are between Man and Man. Mitzvot between Man and G-d hardly appear here.
Judaism is primarily a society of law and not of men. Of course there is a place for opinions and innovations, but one can not leave the borders of Halacha and change the rules that were given on the basis of personal agenda and ideals. Our lives are directed and governed by the Halacha, and by examining the small details that the Torah goes to the trouble to describe in all the laws and rules in our Parsha, especially after an event of such magnitude and spiritual high as Ma’amad Har Sinai, we can see how important the Mitzvot between Man and Man are, and how important it is to follow them down to the smallest detail. One cannot assume that because Hashem is not really a party to these Mitzvot, that they are not as important. They must be followed and fulfilled to the smallest details in order for us to be able to achieve a spiritual high, the spirituality of Ma’amad Has Sinai.