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Torah Sparks

February 2, 2008 – 26 Shevat 5768

Annual: Ex. 21:1 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Ex. 21:1 – 22:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8 – 22:33:25 – 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 482; Hertz p. 323)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Parashat Mishpatim is called Sefer HaBrit, the Book of the Covenant, for it begins the presentation of the mitzvot, the particulars that define the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In fact, Mishpatim contains 53 of the 613 mitzvot found in the Torah. Up until this point, the Torah has been a narrative; from here on, the Torah will present the laws by which the Israelites are to live, with occasional narrative breaks.

The laws of Mishpatim deal with master and slave, capital offenses, personal injury, negligence, theft, and property. There are also laws prohibiting the mistreatment of the weak and powerless – strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor. We also read about Shabbat, the Sabbatical year, and major festivals. God again repeats the promise that the Israelites will inherit the land of Canaan and warns against worshiping the gods of the Canaanite nations.

The covenant is ratified at a formal ceremony of acceptance. Moses and the elders eat a meal and see a vision of God. Moses alone ascends the mountain to receive the stone tablets, remaining there for forty days and nights.

Torah and Mitzvot

These are the rules... (Exodus 21:1)

  1. Wherever [the term] eileh (these) is stated, it cuts off the preceding; v’eileh (and these) adds to the preceding. Just as the preceding [laws were given] at Sinai, so these [were given] at Sinai. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Just as the former are from Sinai, these too are from Sinai (Rashi). We know that every commandment in the Torah is from Sinai, and “even that which a veteran student will teach before his master was already said to Moses at Sinai” (Yerushalmi Peah 2:6). What then is the stress in Rashi that the laws of this parashah were given at Sinai? Rather, this teaches us that even those laws that we can understand purely intellectually and logically are valid only because God wants them and agrees to them. It is not human logic that determines matters, but God’s will as expressed at Sinai. (Hidushei HaRIM [Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter, the Gerer Rabbi, 1799-1866, Poland])
  3. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Scripture puts the easiest of commandments on the same level as the most difficult of observances. The easiest of commandments – letting a mother bird go; and the most difficult of commandments – honoring a father and mother. And with regard to each, it is written “that your days may be long.” (Yerushalmi Peah 14d)
  4. Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: A person should always occupy himself with Torah and mitzvot, even if it be for an ulterior motive, for out of occupying himself with them for an ulterior motive, he will come to occupy himself with them for the right motive. (Nazir 23b)
  5. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah declared: A person should not say, “I do not like swine’s meat, I do not like wearing linsey-woolsey (shatnez).” He should say, “I like both. But what can I do? My Father in heaven decreed for me not to.” (Sifra 93d)

Sparks for Discussion

Rashi and others make the point that all of the Torah’s mitzvot are equal, all given by God at Sinai, all equally binding. Still, it is almost impossible for a person to given equal weight to observing all the mitzvot. Why do you perform the mitzvot you do? Why do you choose not to do others? Are there any mitzvot you do just “because God said so”? What do you imagine God would think of your approach to mitzvot? How do you define the word “mitzvah”?

To Learn and To Teach

...that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1)

  1. God said to Moses: It should not enter your mind to say, “I will teach them a section of the Torah or a single halakhah twice or three times until it will be fluent in their mouths exactly according to its wording [i.e. verbatim], but I shall not take the trouble to make them understand the reason of each thing and its significance.” Therefore, Scripture says that you shall set before them – like a table fully set before a person with everything ready for eating. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Lubchanski said, we see from God’s command to Moses that: (1) A teacher must acquire the patience necessary to explain matters at length; (2) Although Moses would have been able to attain greater heights if he would have devoted all his time to his own spiritual elevation, God commanded him to use his precious time to explain the laws to the people; and (3) A teacher must have his students’ best interest in mind, rather than his own. (Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Lubchanski, d. 1941, Lithuania)
  3. Disciples increase the teacher’s wisdom and broaden his mind. The sages said, “Much wisdom I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, from my pupils most of all.” Even as a small piece of wood kindles a large log, so a pupil of small attainment sharpens the mind of his teacher, so that by his questions, he elicits glorious wisdom. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 5:13 [Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt])
  4. A student should not be embarrassed if a fellow student has understood something after the first or second time and he has not grasped it even after several attempts. If he is embarrassed because of this, it will turn out that he will come and go from the house of study without learning anything at all. (Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 246:11)

Sparks for Discussion

We are all, at various times, teachers and students – not just in classrooms, but learning to read Torah, teaching a teenager to drive, training a new employee at work, or being that new employee. Think about the best teachers you ever had. What makes a great teacher? What qualities are most important for teachers? For students? How do we encourage great teaching and learning in our schools, shuls, homes, and workplaces?

Halakhah L'Ma-aseh

21:19 pay for... his cure [literally, he shall certainly cure him] From this we learn that authorization was granted to the physician to heal (Baba Kamma 85a) The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards [CJLS] has looked at the issue of responsibility for providing medical care. Among its conclusions:

  1. Jewish law requires that people be provided with needed health care, at least a “decent minimum” that preserves life and meets other basic needs, including some amount of preventive care.
  2. Individuals have the responsibility to care for their own health, and the primary responsibility to pay (directly or through insurance).
  3. Physicians and other health care professionals must treat patients in case of emergency... At the same time, health care professionals legitimately may expect compensation for their efforts.
  4. The community bears ultimate responsibility to assure provision of needed health care for individuals who cannot afford it...
  5. The guarantee of provision of needed health care does not extend to all treatment that is desired, or even all that might provide some benefit.

The entire CJLS paper is available at

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