According to Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, when young children were ready to begin learning Torah, they were first taught Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. “Rabbi Assi said, why do young children commence with Torat Kohanim (the rabbinic name for Vayikra) and not with Genesis? Surely it is because young children are pure and the sacrifices are pure, so let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure.”
It’s a nice thought, but it’s hard to imagine any modern teacher thinking that we should introduce children to Torah by having them study the technical details of animal sacrifices and matters of ritual purity and impurity.
Modern teachers are most likely to begin with stories about the Torah’s most compelling personalities — Abraham, Joseph, Moses — and spectacular events — the exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Their purpose is to first engage children’s interest in studying Torah and then proceed from there.
But God, as it were, chooses a different curriculum. Immediately after the revelation at Sinai, God tells Moses he is to begin his teaching: “And these are the rules you shall set before them.”
And so we have parashat Mishpatim, an apparently random compilation of laws, some 53 of the 613 commandments — slavery, murder, negligence, theft, lending, tithes, holidays, idolatry — a little bit of everything. But if our parasha has a focus, it is civil law — torts and damages — rather than what we might call religious or ritual law.
Why? Because, as the chasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha taught: “And these are the rules you shall set before them.” “Before them” indicates that the Torah taught us that the civil law, namely the commandments between man and his fellow, come before anything else, before the commandments between man and God.
In Judaism, the most important measure of a human being is how ethically and morally he or she acts in relationships with fellow people in society at large. And so, the Torah tells us our responsibilities:
• When men quarrel and one strikes the other;
• When an ox gores a person;
• When a person digs a pit and does not cover it;
• When a person’s ox injures his neighbor’s ox;
• When a person lets his livestock graze on another’s land;
• When a person borrows an animal, and;
• When you encounter your enemy’s animal wandering.
The study of Torah is essential. Prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, and holidays are crucial. But they are more than intellectual exercises. These religious commandments are supposed to affect how we live in our families, workplaces, and communities.
I am reminded of a story told by a rabbi who served as a prison chaplain. He went to see a man who was in jail for theft — apparently the man was guilty and the theft was significant. Yet all the man could talk about was how upset he was because he didn’t have his tefillin.
Clearly, the inmate had missed the lesson of parashat Mishpatim.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.