“וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם:-And these are the laws that you will place before them” (Exodus 21:1)

The Children of Israel have just heard the Aseret HaDibrot-The Ten Speakings directly from ANOCHI YHVH ELOHECHA. 

They heard the ten foundational principles for a holy and moral life. 

Immediately following that in Parshat Mishpatim YHVH begins to download to Moshe and Israel the many actual mishpatim ve’mitzvot-laws and commandments that enable a holy and moral life to be actualized. The unique Israelite legal system begins to take form.

What makes it special? 

What is its importance in and for the world?

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook ZT’L (1865-1935) wrote about this extensively. In his lifetime and especially from the time he arrived in Israel in 1904 he was the leading authority of Torah  law in the world.

In honor of Parshat Mishpatim let us review some of his writings on the unique significance of the Torah’s legal system

“The value of the Torah’s law and judgment system is very great. It sets the unique stamp of Torat Chayim-The Torah of Life on the Torah. It is most necessary for the Torah to be an illuminating force that impacts the actual practical activities of life. It should not be valued only for its exalted wisdom.

The legal system of the Torah therefore makes a great impression on life. It is not possible for social communal life to exist well without the power of din ve’mishpat- law and judgment. The Torah can thus have a great actual effect on life when it directs life with its laws.

And through this the Torah’s legal system also impacts the other pathways and activities of life. 

We thus have to be very careful that our engagement in the theoretical Torah does not prevent the Torah from having a controlling influence on practical life.  It is only when it does that the purpose of the Torah will manifest itself fully in reality.  

Emet-Truth, Din-Law and Shalom-Peace are the three pillars on which the world stands. (Pirkei Avot 1:18) and they are all dependent on Din-Law as our sages teach: ‘Din brings Emet which brings Shalom’. (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4b)

This is to teach us that the Torah is directly connected to Derech HaChayim-The Path of Life. It is not enough to engage only in the theoretical Torah and not make a determined effort to strengthen its influence on actual life….

The foundation of the Torah and its purpose is to be an active and actual force in practical and societal life.” (Eyn Aya Shabbat 1:8)

How will it do this?

“The particulars of the Mishpat-Law that is based on ‘Torat YHVH Temima-The complete Torah of HaShem’ (Tehillim 19:8) are connected to the largest universality. They incorporate within them the foundation of a great aid that can bring multiple rescues to humankind and the entire creation….

The power of the bad and evil will be reduced when Divine law is dominant….And as its power is reduced, the power of the bad will slowly and gradually lessen in the human heart. In its stead will enter feelings of ethics, justice and integrity.” (Eyn Aya, Shabbat 2:156)

Parshat Mishpatim details the punishments for disobedience of the laws. A legal system must include consequences so that the bad and evil activity can be stopped and deterred. However, this power of punishment and control can be abused if absolute morality and justice are not at the core of the society’s legal system.

As Rav Kook explains:

“There are two sources for law and punishment systems. The positive source comes from the recognition that it is forbidden to do injustice. The one who acts unjustly must therefore be punished so that this recognition will be strengthened.

The negative source comes from the miserly perspective that another human being  is not allowed to benefit or come into contact with what is mine.  This is where the selfish feeling of ‘mine’ and ‘me’ is dominant and manifests without limit. Laws that do not come from a Divine source are drawing from this negative source of bad. 

Divine laws have none of this bad. They come from the good source of truth and integrity for its own sake….

Most of the legal systems in the world are based on crude selfishness and upon it are built humanity’s political and social systems.

Until we reach the prophesied level of ‘beating our swords into plowshares’  (based on Isaiah 2:4) Israeli’s battle for HaShem is singular. Its goal is the strengthening of the Divine light. This requires that its source of law be completely from and for the good….

Human society is generally divided into nations that fight each other mercilessly. They are drawing from the negative source of evil and their legal systems do not battle injustice. They actually support evil and narrow minded selfishness…” (Notebook 2:267)

The Torah directs Israel and all humankind to embrace the Divinely sourced laws of good and justice.

In a very important 1906 essay Rav Kook wrote:

“The strengthening of all aspects of our nation’s life is dependent on the strengthening of our spiritual character. This, in turn, depends on experiencing illumination from the spiritual realm, from the universal consciousness that will bring the spirit of humankind and the world to complete harmony in the messianic age….

The preparation of the spiritual character of our nation for unification with this universal consciousness is made possible through the higher ‘moral Torah’.  It conveys the divine revelation of morality and wisdom through the mitzvot-commandments that were given as tools for human refinement…The thrust of the Divine good is discernible in every part of this eternal Torah…

The higher ‘moral Torah’ will enable the Divine psychic force hidden in the soul of Israel to be aroused. The refined spirit of wisdom and morality will come to life again…Every heart will then be pervaded with an inner love, tranquil and confident.

In every cultivated soul, there will then be revealed the pulsating action of the universal Divine psyche. It will express itself in vision and in song. Its impact will be felt everywhere. 

At first it will make itself felt primarily among the people of Israel, and before long, it will also be felt throughout humankind….and the joy of heaven and earth will return as in ancient days. 

The higher ‘moral Torah’ is concerned with the quest for  universal good, the absolute good that will positively affect all existence…The movement of the universal good is embraced through its laws. It gives expression to the the morality and justice that is at the heart of reality…” (Hanir Journal, 1906, later published in Ma’amarei HaRayah)

“וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם:-And these are the laws that you will place before them” (Exodus 21:1)

May we be blessed to be agents of  Divine laws that will  ‘bring the spirit of humankind and the world to complete harmony.’

Be’Mhera BeYamenu-Immediately In Our Days.


Prepared by Rabbi Itzchak Evan-Shays, haorot@gmail.com, www.haorot.com 


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