“And these are the rules that you shall set before them…” (Shemot 21:1)
So this is where heaven and earth converge:
not at the peak of the mountain
but on the rock-strewn ground below;
not in the drama of thunder and lightning;
but in the tableau of day-to-day life –
in the passion and rage that tear at its fabric
and the safeguards that keep it intact;
in the ox that gores and the open pit
and the fire that withers the field;
in the care for the stranger, the orphan and widow;
in the quest for the presence of God.
In a commentary on Parashat Mishpatim from 2005, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/shabbat-shekalimmishpatim/5765/reverence-contradictory-texts Dr Ismar Schorsch notes that the parasha commences with the letter “vav” meaning “and” which is regarded by most translations to be insignificant – the sentence is usually rendered as “These are the rules…” However, as Dr Schorsch points out, no letter in the Torah is regarded as irrelevant, and this one is no exception, so Rabbi Yishmael teaches that the word “and” links this parasha with the previous one. So this is a direct continuation of Parashat Yitro in which the people received the Torah at Mount Sinai.
In a commentary from 2011, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/mishpatim/5771/routine-and-profound, Dr Barry Holtz takes up the theme, pointing out that the transition is very sharp, from the spiritual heights of Revelation, to “the nitty-gritty of daily life, the laws of slave and slaveholder, the details of petty feuds, of accidental death and injury, of the goring ox, the fires in the vineyard, and the thief in the night. We are, in other words, back in the midst of our existence, facing all its cares and concerns, both the fateful and the mundane.”
Dr Holtz continues, “I sometimes think of Parashat Mishpatim as a vast picture — painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder perhaps — with life teeming and pulsating, spreading across a canvas dotted with little scenes of horror and triumph. What lies behind all of this is the Torah’s desperate plea for justice, for a world in which the Revelation at Sinai gets worked out in terms that make sense in real life. Parashat Mishpatim is an attempt to make the impossible equation of the variety of human experience — with all its energy, desire, selfishness, sacrifice, nobility, and more — somehow balance out. To find, in the end, equity and compassion.”
However, Dr Holtz notes that although Mishpatim is replete with laws regulating daily human existence, it closes with perhaps the most mystical episode in the entire Torah in which Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and the seventy elders ascend Mount Sinai and and see God! “And they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (Shemot 24:10). Dr Holtz says, “This is truly an extraordinary passage; particularly because we know from slightly later in the Torah that Moses is told that no one can see God and live (Shemot 33:20). In fact, in Parashat Mishpatim, immediately after the vision of God and the pavement of sapphire, the text says, “Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites…” (Shemot 24:11), telling us, in other words, how remarkable an event this was: they saw God, but God allowed them to live nonetheless.”
Dr Holtz concludes, “So, in the end, Parashat Mishpatim is not so simple: it is not only the return to the common experience of day-to-day life after the Revelation at Sinai. It describes a mixture of both the routine and the profound after all—the human dilemmas of everyday life and the divine sapphire pavement. Rudolph Otto, the great scholar of religion in the early part of the 20th century, wrote about the “numinous,” the nonrational, mysterious dimension of existence that, on rare occasions, we are able to glimpse. Moses, Aaron, and the elders were granted that insight. But perhaps what we come to see here, in the juxtaposition of that story on the mountain and the many more ordinary cases brought earlier in the parashah, is the possibility that these two domains of existence are ever intertwined—and that both are holy.”
In a commentary that also addresses the mystical episode on the mountaintop, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/shabbat-shekalimmishpatim/5772/standing-moses-mountaintop, Professor Arnold Eisen also notes the striking contrast between the “dry case law” and the other-worldly encounter that follows it. He says, “Scholars and commentators long asked why chapters devoted to the nuts and bolts of social order in the world as we know it are followed by an account of mystical encounter with the God Whom we can never fully know, the God Who transcends every order.” Professor Eisen asks, “How do the extraordinary events at the top of the mountain relate to what is meant to happen routinely down below?”
Professor Eisen submits that we may not have a vision of God like the one described, and in any event language cannot ever adequately portray what Moses and the others saw, and so he says, “You cannot “know” God in this way, the Torah says at many points, but you can know what God wants of you. Follow the mishpatim (laws) and other mitzvot, lead a life marked by justice and compassion, work to construct a society marked by these virtues, and you will, at the very least, know you are spending your days wisely, doing God’s will. You may even encounter God at various points along this Way of Torah, as Moses and the elders encountered God at the outset of the Way.
Readers of Torah get to stand right up there with Moses on the mountaintop, thanks to the dramatic account at the conclusion of Mishpatim. And we can be with him right down here too, as we follow the Torah’s directions to justice.”
In his book Hazmana LaParasha – Invitation to the Parasha, in a commentary on Mishpatim, Rabbi Noam Perl also comments on the extraordinarily abrupt transition from the elevated heights of Mount Sinai and the Revelation, to the depths of the mundane laws of day-to-day life, with its collateral injuries and damages. “This very sharp transition” he contends, “epitomises the uniqueness and essence of Torah, which deals concomitantly with both the elevated and the lowly aspects of life. It demands of those who follow the Torah to live concurrently in the world of nobility and lofty ideals on the one hand, and to deal with blemishes in the lung of an animal…on the other.” He concludes, “The very juxtaposition of these mundane-seeming laws with the peak of Divine Revelation on Mount Sinai, is indeed the root of the Giving of the Torah – the fusion between heaven and earth and the bringing down of the Godly ideal into the midst of the material world, with both its strengths and complexities, in order to repair the world and render it God’s kingdom.”