<i>Mishpatim</I>: The General and the Particular

The parshiot of Yitro and Mishpatim complete and complement each other.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner

Judaism לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
The parshiot of Yitro and Mishpatim complete and complement each other. Parshat Yitro concentrates on our encounter with G-d, when "G-d descended on Mt. Sinai" (Exodus 29:19). G-d Himself spoke to us directly in this awesome, sublime encounter. There were "thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud upon the mountain," (ibid. 16) an exalted fog beyond that which the limitations of the human mind can grasp. On Mount Sinai there was an all-inclusive but abbreviated revelation of the Ten Commandments - which include all the mitzvot of the Torah (see Sefer HaIkarim, 3:26, and the piyut "Kel Elokim" by Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, recited in the Shavuot prayers).

At Mount Sinai, we experience the general essence of the Torah. However, the Torah is not merely an abstract, idealized encounter with the Creator, it is a detailed, precise prescription of how to lead our lives in all possible situations - down to legal decisions involving pennies.

Therefore, Mishapatim follows Yitro, just as details follow a general rule. Still, the actual encounter with G-d stands by itself, independent of the content of that Revelation, and therefore we thank Him for that alone: "Had He brought us to Mt. Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have been sufficient." (from the Passover Haggada) At first reading, we wonder what advantage there could have been to being at Mt. Sinai if we hadn't received the Torah there? The answer is that the very encounter, the closeness and feeling of belonging, the revelation on Mt. Sinai, is in itself momentous. Here, the Master of the World turned to mankind through His revelation to the People of Israel. The relation of this revelation to the detailed teachings following [in parshat Mishpatim] is similar to the relation of creation ex nihilo to the later creation of our world in all its variety and complexity. The fact that the Master of the World saw fit to personally address His creatures is a tremendous innovation, from which the detailed teaching of the 613 mitzvot ensue.

This continuation, which spells out in detail how to act in all situations, great or small, weighty or trivial, is of greatest importance. No matter how outstanding his insights are, the greatest philosopher in the world will have no effect if he cannot translate those insights into detailed practical steps in accord with reality. Ideals which "float in the air" do not uplift mankind. On the other hand, there are men of action who have no vision and whose achievements are therefore quite limited. We need both vision and pragmatism, body and soul, details and general principles.

"And these are the laws which you shall set before them....." (Exodus 21:1) "[The words] 'And these' teach that this is a continuation of the preceding [parsha]...." (Rashi, op. cit.) The mitzvot explicated here are a continuation of the revelation at Sinai, and together they form one whole. "Just as the former is from Sinai, so are the latter." (Rashi, ibid.) All have the same Divine source and sanctity. These laws are what imbue our daily lives - in all their triviality and degeneracy - with the great ideals of the revelation.

Midat hadin (the attribute of justice) means squeezing the infinite divine light into the constraints of temporal life. Our existence is not without direction. Mankind has not been left to cope, unguided, with all the pitfalls of life, dependent on his own limited resources alone. Divine Providence extends to us not only lofty visions, but also practical guidance, down to the very minutest details, thus raising our lives to the highest level of holiness.

[From Tal Chermon; translated by Bracha Slae. All rights reserved to Ateret Cohanim.]