Parshat Mishpatim: Who Deserves Justice?

Everybody is talking about peace, nobody is talking about justice.”

Contrary to the Israeli rock singer Muki’s complaint, the Torah, at least, is very concerned with justice. Parshat Mishpatim is dedicated to the values of justice and law, and its location in the biblical story indicates the subject’s centrality and importance. The previous parsha, Parshat Yitro, concluded with the revelation at Mount Sinai, the most significant revelation of God in the history of the world. Immediately afterward, in our parsha, the Torah details and reiterates some of the laws that were given at Sinai, with an emphasis on those which relate to justice and law. Rashi sees the proximity of the subjects as an indication that “justice sits at the world’s peak, for the Torah connected it to the ten commandments, as is written: ‘and these are the laws’ (Shmot 21:1)” (Rashi Mishna Avot 1:1). Furthermore, our parsha opens with a connecting vav, “and these are the laws,” which points to a close link between the subjects.

But the ultimate question is not how important justice is, rather what is justice? And to whom does justice apply? The Torah addresses this question at length as well. Not content to merely forbid causing damage to other people or their property, what we might call “live and let live” justice, the Torah demands active justice and dedication to helping the other, such as the command to return lost objects and to help release an animal from its burden (Shmot 23:4-5).

Scales of JusticePerhaps the most relevant question to our lives today, one which is comes up frequently in the public sphere, is who is included in the laws of justice? The principle that justice applies not only to those from among our own people but also for the other is repeated again and again throughout the Torah: in Avraham’s prayer for the people of Sodom, in Moshe’s rescue at the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, in Moshe’s involvement to save the Midianite girls, and more. The Torah repeatedly emphasizes the importance of treating the foreigner and stranger justly. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the spirit of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Shmot 23:9).

It is understandable that many Jews relate to the “other” with distrust and negativity. After thousands of years of persecution and at a time when we are still engaged in an existential conflict with another nation, it is natural that some relate to non-Jews with suspicion and even hostility. But this is not the only way to deal with the scars of the past and the challenges of the present. Bnei Yisrael experienced suffering and persecution in Egypt, yet the Torah sees the negative experience as an opportunity for growth, and commands us to act with empathy toward strangers and to identify with them, because we know what it is like to be the strangers in a society. Elsewhere we are commanded not only to tolerate the stranger, but to open our hearts to him: “And when there shall be a stranger who lives in your land you shall not oppress him. As a citizen among you shall be the stranger who dwells with you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt, I am God your Lord” (Vayikra 19:33-34).

Justice To Animals

The call for justice applies not only to human relationships, but also in the way we relate to animals. The Talmud (Baba Metziah 85a) tells a story about a calf that was being led to slaughter when it escaped and hid, crying, in the folds of Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi’s coat. But Rabbi Yehudah told it, “Go, it was for this you were created.” His lack of mercy is seen as a sin, and he was punished with a long lasting ailment. One day, he saw his maid sweeping out baby moles from the house, and he requested that she leave them be on account of the verse “and his mercy is on all his creations” (Psalms 145:9). With that, his punishment ended and the ailment ceased.

Parshat Mishpatim also places a high value on mercy towards animals. The command to rest on Shabbat applies equally to animals (Shmot 23:12) and the Torah forbids cooking a kid in it’s mother’s milk (ibid 19). Additionally, it is prohibited to sacrifice an animal before it has spent at least seven days in its mother’s company (ibid 22:29) and we are commanded to leave the fruits of the seventh year in the field for the animals (ibid 23:11). Our Parsha is also the source for the Talmudic prohibition of causing pain to animals (Baba Metziah 32b). The relationship to animals doesn’t only grant them rights, it also gives them responsibility – when an ox gores a person it receives a type of judgment, and the ox is stoned to death (ibid 21:28).

Justice and Revelation

Since the time of Avraham, the values of justice and law have been connected to divine revelation. God selects Avraham “because I have known that he will command his children and his house to follow him and guard the way of God, to do justice and law” (Bereshit 18:19). Likewise, as we saw in parshat Shmot, the three stories which preempt Moshe’s selection as leader of Am Yisrael all have to do with his dedication to justice.

What is the connection between justice and revelation? First of all, God recoils from injustice, but on a deeper level, it is through justice that his presence is revealed in the world. In our parsha, flesh and blood judges are referred to as “elohim,” which usually means God (Shmot 22:7-10). Perhaps this means that a person who dedicates his life to justice, a basic value of the divine, most fulfills his creation in the “image of God.” God dwells within a society which is founded on justice, he is expressed in this world through the keeping of divine values, of which justice is of utmost importance. The holy Zohar on our parsha sees an affront to justice as an affront to God Himself (Zohar Mishpatim 112a).

Justice establishes the rules that govern society based on morality, not personal interests. It requires a person to see beyond himself and to listen to the word of God. Revelation is the ongoing process of humans tuning in to the heavenly voice, and God speaks to those who know how to listen.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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