Open a volume of the Code of Federal Regulations or a copy of your local township's ordinances and you'll likely find a dry tabulation of seemingly disconnected laws, bereft of soul and lacking in any semblance of overarching character.
At first glance, that appears to be what this week's Torah portion offers: a list of 53 laws dealing with such topics as indentured servitude and slavery, assault and kidnapping, negligence and theft, preservation of property, idolatrous behavior, respect for the legal system, lending, agricultural practices, Shabbat and holy days and kashrut. Its very name, "mishpatim," refers to the rules that Moses was commanded to "set before" the people.
Following the vivid emotional climax found in last week's reading — the giving of the Ten Commandments — this collection of verses might come across as uninspiring and legalistic.
Were it not for the crucial addition of one Hebrew letter to the first word of the portion, the above assessment might have been true. But a "vav," meaning "and," connects the majesty of last week with the legal minutiae this week. It serves to say, commentators point out, that just as the Commandments were received at Mount Sinai, so too all of the Torah was received from the Almighty.
According to Nachmanides, everything that follows the Ten Commandments comes by way of explanation and expansion of the Decalogue's key principles. The Torah states many of the laws found in this week's portion as an explication of "do not covet," he writes, because "if a person didn't know the laws of a house or a field or other property, he would think that [anything he came in contact with] would be his."
But there's a deeper meaning to how the Torah presents its laws. Elsewhere in the Torah, different words are used to indicate Divine commands. The word "mishpatim" refers to those rational laws which a person would be able to deduce on his or her own, as opposed to "chukim," which are the supra-rational edicts — such as most of the framework of kashrut — whose sole foundation for observance lies in their status as decrees of the King.
By following the Ten Commandments with the most rational of the 613 mitzvot, the Torah indicates that mankind should not be fooled by appearances: Even the most lowly of Divine precepts are expressions of the Almighty's will, and just as at Mount Sinai, comprehending their rational basis should not be a prerequisite of obeying them.
We're left in a quandary, however, when we approach two laws found in this portion. Both a person who strikes his parents and a person who curses his parents are liable to the death penalty. What's rational about that?
The Talmud teaches that there are three partners in the creation of life: a father, a mother, and the Holy One, Blessed be He. The partnership goes far deeper than the fact that parents provide the physical material, while the One Above provides the spiritual soul. By their thoughts and conduct, parents affect not only the physical character of their offspring; their attitudes have a bearing on the kind of people their sons and daughters become.
Parents, in effect, are the caretakers on Earth of the property of the Divine. As such, to curse or strike them would be to curse the Almighty. It would be to deny the power of Heaven, to abrogate the entire giving of the Torah.
It's as if the Torah is saying: "Because I told you so" is the most rational of motivations.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.