Parashat Mishpatim: Why do we follow Laws?

The Schechter school handbook states that “Students may not take [food served by the school] outside the cafeteria.” However, on a regular basis I see both students and faculty taking their lunch outside the cafeteria. It is clear that for a rule to be followed it needs to be enforced and without a body to enforce the rule, the rule has no authority. If this is the case, what makes us follow the laws of the Torah that were written 3500 years ago and are no longer enforced? Are we more likely to follow strict rules or lenient rules?

This week’s parsha is Mishpatim. It consists of 53 commandments, mitzvot, that are pretty much bullet pointed and unorganized. For example, at one point it commands us not to charge interest from God’s people and then it says not to curse your elders. The parsha begins with Moshe saying וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם or “These are the laws you are to set before them.” After reading this, the word תשים struck me. God tells Moshe that he must present these laws to the people, but how is Moshe supposed to teach the laws to Bney Yisrael? How are we, today, supposed to observe them and implement them into our lives?

If the laws are meant to be followed literally then maybe that is what has enabled us to continuously follow them for so long. Rashi interprets the word תָּשִׂ֖ים as meaning that Moshe shouldn’t trouble himself with enabling the people to understand the mitzvot, but rather that he should present the laws before them like a set table. This is what I would call the “shulchan aroch” interpretation. Similarly to the code of law written by Yosef Karo, Rashi believes that God has presented a clear set of laws which must all be followed.

The Midrash HaGadol gives another interpretation of תָּשִׂ֖ים. It says that Moshe must teach the people the 13 hermeneutic principles, written by Rabbi Ishmael, which describe how to interpret and determine the meaning of the Torah.  This implies that the laws can be interpreted, but it doesn’t explain how exactly we must literally follow them.

Is the Torah really telling us to blindly follow the laws? Over the years I’ve found that blindly following laws quite often pushes people away from Judaism rather than bringing them closer. There are also some who say that since no one is enforcing these laws, there is no reason to follow them. However, I am not bothered by the rules not being enforced, and in fact I want them there because they provide me with a sense of cultural identity. Though this doesn’t mean I follow every law because I definitely don’t. So, while some may prefer having rules for their straightforward guidance in life, some do not, and they prefer the laws because they unite us as Jews. If this is the case, then following laws is not what has kept Judaism alive, and requiring  people to follow the mitzvot may in fact deter people from following them.

This is an example of a common debate that has happened throughout modern Jewish history. For example the differences between the Chatam Sofer (the founder of the orthodox movement) who believed in following all the laws in the Torah and Israel Jacobson (the founder of the Reform movement) who believed in following the ethics of the Torah. Should Judaism be focused on laws instructing us constantly about what to do or should Judaism just present these laws to us to help guide us in life? Should we be free to interpret the law or should someone else decide for us? Is the Torah meant to strictly be followed or are we even allowed to interpret it?

It is also possible that the mitzvot were designed to be a guide for us as to how we should interpret Torah. This is hinted at through the סמיכות פרשיות between parshat mishpatim and the end of parshat Yitro (Last week’s Torah reading). In Yitro, God gives Bney Yisrael the ten commandments, Laws that can easily be understood as guiding laws, almost like the laws of nature. Whereas the laws in Mishpatim are laid out like the laws of a government, with the expectation that they will all be followed. I think that God may have done this in order to ease B’ney Yisrael into the mitzvot. One of the hardest things to do when teaching a child rules is not to overwhelm them because they may then they may turn completely against all of the laws. As modern Jews we’ve realized that it’s not so easy to balance Halakah with modern values. In many cases we end up choosing how many and which mitzvot we wish to observe. Some people decide to only follow the ten commandments while others try to incorporate all Jewish halacha into their life. Some people don’t feel comfortable with certain laws and that may be why God gave us less constricting basic laws in the prior parshah.

Another important verse in understanding how we as people choose to observe the mitzvot comes towards the conclusion of parshah mishpatim. After God finishes listing his new laws to Moshe, he instructs Moshe to recite these laws to the Bney Yisrael. They respond,

“כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶֽׂה” “All the words which the Lord hath spoken will we do.” Moshe then writes down the laws and he reads the people the book of the covenant. This time, they respond, “כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע” “All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey.”

According to a midrash by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the people had initially prioritized ‘doing’ laws until Moshe instructed them that it is impossible to ‘do’ the mitzvot without first  ‘understanding’ them because only ‘understanding’ brings one to properly ‘doing.’ He continues by saying that נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע ‘We will do and we will understand’ means that we will do only what we understand. This midrash is very interesting because it instructs us not to blindly follow the torah, but to only observe what we as people who study torah are able to clearly understand.

So, after all, it may seem like the torah does not want us to blindly follow all the mitzvot. But then again, this same נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע is also used to justify a blind commitment to the Torah. In Shabbat 88a of the talmud it says that “When Israel uttered na’aseh before nishma, 600,000 ministering angels came to each and every Jew and tied two crowns to each Jew, one corresponding to na’aseh and one corresponding to nishma.” Meaning that we must each be committed to carrying out God’s commandments even before hearing what the observance of those commandments actually involves. In other words, we must accept all laws without choice even if we are opposed to them. But, we still must understand why God wants us to do it, justifying a necessity for studying Torah and not just memorizing the rules.

In Derek Sivers’, The Paradox of Choice, he states that “The more options you have, the more likely you will experience regret.” It’s not always so good to leniently follow laws because when we are given the choice to follow what we want, we are more likely to regret it.

In the end, neither blindly following the Torah nor using the Mitzvot as a mere guide can defeat the other. Both options work. Clearly modern Jews need options and we can’t blindly follow the mitzvoth. Yet, at the same time, the Torah tells us to follow all of the mitzvot. So, if this  analysis of Mishpatim has taught me anything, it’s that one of the most important things about modern Judaism is that we must respect one another’s observances no matter how closely we follow the laws. As soon as someone says that a Jew is not a Jew because of their level of observance, then that is what will bring destruction to the Jewish people.

In a modern society we have this privilege of choice, something that wasn’t always there for our relatives living a couple hundred years ago. Jews used to be kicked out of their community for not observing halacha. As I stand in this synagogue in Krakow, I can’t help but imagine how different their lives were from ours. Prior to the emancipation period, all Jews observed a similar level of observance of halacha. Beginning in the early 19th century, Jews started drifting towards the reform movement. Polish law finally permitted civic equality and Jews entered mainstream Polish culture. The Jews of Poland faced many challenges during this time, one of which was making a choice as to how they will integrate their Jewish lives into the heavily christian world in the rest of Poland. What I found quite interesting about this parsha is that the laws described, despite being really the first ones the Jews receive, are almost entirely about civil laws and how Jews (and really anyone) should conduct themselves in certain civil disputes. Rather than beginning the torah with laws for a holiday or laws for the priests, God chooses to tell us how to interact with people in the real world, values that the Jewish people continue to carry for 3000 years.

In discussing this week’s parsha, Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator points out that the Mishpatim are not commandments that apply to every Jew, but they are only applicable if a specific occasion arises. So at the end of the day when it may seem like our school, synagogue, country or even our parents are trying to bombard us with rules, just know that rules are there to help us should we not know what to do in a situation. If we step out and try to understand God’s intentions with creating laws and not necessarily the meaning of the halacha, we will learn to love Judaism for its values which is exactly the intention of Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.