In our discussions on the Book of Shemot thus far, we have examined the various elements of freedom that are expressed through its stories and commandments. Here, in Perashat Mishpatim, we come to the detailed, everyday issues that affect our lives as free human beings. The laws presented in Mishpatim deal with many issues, among them are laws that address culpability for inflicting bodily harm, responsibilities for borrowing and lending, a judge’s directives and limits, and how we are to treat those in a weak or vulnerable state, like the widow, orphan and convert. It is clear that while in previous parashot we read of liberation and redemption from bondage, here we read of restrictions.
Before we leave Sinai to embark on building a free society, we are cautioned against using our freedom to abuse or mistreat others. The word mishpatim literally means judgements, which, with a bit of thought, seems a strange word to use for laws. ‘Judgement’ is used here because judgement by its very nature, creates definitions. Definition provides clarity, and when we judge, we draw lines, we sharpen details, and we ensure that delineation and dimension are intact so that the individual integrity of the different elements of our world can remain distinct and properly integrated.
These special laws, therefore, relate to judgements about appropriateness — namely, the appropriateness of our own free existence as it impacts our surroundings and interactions. Mishpatim ensure that freedom is kept sacred by making sure that it is not muddied by overextension. The limits that are set by Torah within civil life guard against the blurring of lines and unchecked actions to which freedom can give rise. The clarity of knowing what one is responsible for, when one must act or remain silent, what one can control and what one must never control are outlined, and in those judgments of appropriateness freedom emerges complete and healthy.
Perashat Mishpatim does more than set the circumstances for a group of righteous individuals to thrive, it also sets the terms through which a whole society can live in justice. In the vast matrix of reality where interactions of many detailed parts create the living web of civilisation, appropriate judgements are essential in order to maintain its overall integrity and authenticity. When we respect the limits of our liberties, we leave open the ability for the human spirit to thrive and for civilisation to flourish in all of its beautiful potential.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck