Mishpatim: A brutal acknowledgement of human weakness

Mishpatim's legal penal code is based on the worst behavior and attitudes of human beings.

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Rabbi Berel Wein

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What I find most striking about this very detailed, mainly legal and technical parsha of the Torah, is the brutal acknowledgement it makes of human nature and its weaknesses. One would  think that after the exalted moment when the people of Israel accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, when humankind finally achieved its highest moral and intellectual level, that the Torah would no longer find it necessary to burden us with laws, details and rules regarding murder, theft, damages, law suits  and sexual misconduct. 

We should have been led to believe that we are past all that. We are a kingdom of priests and a very holy congregation. Yet, immediately after the lofty description of granting the Torah to Israel at Sinai, it follows immediately with a legal penal code that is based on the worst behavior and attitudes of human beings. The Torah harbors no illusions about human nature. It proclaims to us, at the very beginning of its teachings in Genesis, that the nature and desire of humans is evil from the very first moments of life. In fact, the Torah poses the challenge to overcome the struggle against our own evil impulses and base desires. The Torah was granted to us to serve as a handbook, to instruct us how this is to be accomplished. But the Torah never promised us that this struggle would ever disappear from our human existence.

There are other faiths, social ideas and programs that are based on the idea that human nature can be altered and changed by fiat, legislation, persuasion and, if necessary, even by coercion. Perhaps human behavior can indeed be so controlled, but it cannot be manipulated. It contains many attributes, but It certainly is never to be viewed as being wholly negative in its attitudes and desires. Human nature desires freedom of mind, body and society. It is optimistic and forward looking. it desires continuity of family and nationhood, and it pursues love and well-being. 

Human nature desires structure and has a real appreciation of the fleeting gift of time. All these facets of human nature are also exhibited in the rules and laws promulgated in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah teaches us that there is no escape from human nature but that the good in our nature – which Lincoln called “our better angels,” can make us into the holy people envisioned for us at Sinai. 

Part of the nature within us is our longing for immortality and a connection with what is eternal. The laws and rules that appear in this week’s Torah reading are meant to help foster that drive for eternity. Jews view these laws and rules as a complementary companion to the Ten Commandments of Sinai and the guidebook for Jewish life and society throughout all the ages of our existence. 

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Berel Wein



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