A deeper understanding of Parashat Mishpatim

There is a pattern to the way the many commandments in this parasha are brought. The very order is telling us something.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer ,

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer  
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer  
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Parshat Mishpatim commences with a presentation of multitudinous civil laws in Halakha, addressing the topics of Eved Ivri and Amah Ha-Ivriyah (male and female Jewish servants), assault, murder, kidnap, unintentional bodily harm, damage by and to livestock and inanimate property, theft, home invasion, third-party protection of possessions, loans, and much more. These types of laws as referred to as "mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro" - interpersonal mitzvot, between man and his fellow.

The parshah then changes gears somewhat, as it presents more mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro, such as the prohibition of pressuring a poor person to repay a loan and requirements of returning collateral, yet it also proceeds to feature several "mitzvot bein adam La-Makom" - mitzvot between man and Hashem. Hence does the parshah now introduce mitzvos involving kashrus, Shemitah (Sabbatical Year), Shabbos, avodah zarah (idolatry), Aliyah La-Regel (festival pilrimage to the Temple three times per year), korbonot (Temple offerings), and more. In fact, there is a very interesting pattern to this, as the parshah initially intersperses a small sampling of these and other mitzvos ben adam la-Makom in the midst of its lengthy presentation of mitzvot bein adam la-lachaveiro, yet it then transitions to an exclusive focus on mitzvot bein adam la-Makom.

What is the significance of this pattern?

Although Mishpatim, the Torah's civil laws, are generally viewed as logical and practical regulations, Chazal (the Sages) teach us that Mishpatim have the same kedushah (sanctity) as the rest of the Torah - as Rashi (on Shemot 21:1) cites from the Mechilta: "Just as the earlier mitzvot (in last week's parshah) are from Sinai, so too are these (the Mishpatim) from Sinai". In other words, the same level of sanctity, kedushah, and authority infuses the Mishpatim, and we dare not view them as the mundane or "secular" component of Halakha.

This concept is not merely an affirmation of the import of Mishpatim, but it conveys a very profound hashkafic (theological) insight as well. Whereas a person might assume that Hashem can be encountered primarily in the performance of mitzvot bein adam la-Makom, the very notion of mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro proclaims that Hashem's realm of involvement is indeed everywhere, for His concern lies in the most earthly areas of our conduct. As the parshah states, "An almanah (widow) and ytsom (orphan) you shall not afflict. If you afflict them, when they cry out to me, I will hearken unto their cry and My wrath will burn... Should you take a garment of your friend as collateral, until the evening shall you return it to him. For it is his sole clothing... and it shall be, when he cries out to Me, I will listen, for I am compassionate." (Shemot 22:21-26)

Hashem is omnipresent, such that Divine Presence, the Shechinah, pervades the universe and can be found literally everywhere, as Hashem's concern permeates every fiber of existence, throughout all of life and society. Whereas one might suppose that he can encounter Hashem solely in mitzvot bein adam la-Makom, the Mishpatim inform us that Hashem's Presence can be experienced expansively and without limit in everything that exists, from the realm of korbonos to the rules of property damage and monetary transactions.

This explains the parshah's progressive pattern of presentation, as it moves from a near-exclusive focus on mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro to a blend of mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro and mitzvot bein adam la-Makom, and then to a near-exclusive focus on mitzvot bein adam la-Makom, for we are taught that awareness and cognition of Hashem's Presence in even the most earthly recesses of existence brings us close to Him and leads to an encounter with the Shechinah in the elevated spheres identified with mitzvot bein adam la-Makom and in the Beis Ha-Mikdash (Temple) itself.

Parshat Mishpatim concludes with Moshe Rabbeinu's (Moses’) ascent to Sinai, where Moshe is provided with a special path in the midst of a holy cloud (v. Rashi on Shemot 24:18, from Gemara), to approach and intimately commune with the Shechinah. Realization of the true character of the Mishpatim leads to the ultimate manifestation of sanctity, of kedushah.