A Responsible Nation by Mr.  Moshe Glasser


Most of Parshat Mishpatim seems to be scattered at best, lacking any sense of ‎organization or flow.  Pesukim just follow each other, not bothering to connect to teach ‎other in topic or theme.  Rashi’s favorite question of why one section in Chumash follows ‎another is ubiquitous here, as every time the Pasuk switches topics, we have to figure out ‎why.  This tendency in Mishpatim so bedeviled the Ibn Ezra that he commented that each ‎Halacha in Mishpatim stands alone, and, while we will connect them if we can, we will ‎also assume that we simply do not have the understanding necessary to truly comprehend ‎the overall structure.‎ 

However, if we step back and look at a very large section, some themes do begin to ‎emerge, helping us to solve this problem at least partially.  The Parsha begins by ‎discussing the laws of slaves (21:1-21), including selling one’s daughter (7-11), with a ‎brief interruption for homicide of slaves and non-slaves alike (12-21), then continuing ‎with more sections on physical injury (23-27), damages and deaths by livestock or road ‎obstructions (28-36), and finally theft of livestock (37).  The next Perek opens with a ‎discussion of the laws paying for damage incurred during self-defense, another bit about ‎livestock damage, and finally a protracted section on the four types of custody a person ‎may take – lender, borrower, renter, and unpaid guard (22:1-19).‎ 

While there do seem to be repeated themes throughout these sections, the topics ‎themselves reveal a great deal.  Almost all seem to deal with property, whether the kind ‎that stays stuck to the ground or the kind that can move around on its own, and most of ‎them seem to deal with the possibility of damage.‎

One of the most difficult things I discovered when I became a teacher is the ‎problem of responsibility.  Nobody thinks anything is his or her problem.  When walking ‎out of a bathroom, you put the paper towel in the trash.  If it misses on the first toss, you go back ‎and put it in again.  Why should you bother?  Because your trash is your responsibility.  ‎Pointing out others’ trash on the floor around the garbage can does not change the fact ‎that yours is your problem.‎ 

This part of Mishpatim is all about responsibility – for actions, for slaves, for ‎property, for damage one causes, for items he guards.  Having been slaves for the past ‎two hundred years, Bnei Yisrael are used to owning nothing, to being responsible for ‎nothing beyond the work they had to do.  The very idea of ownership is foreign to a ‎slave, and they must relearn it if they are to function in a free society.  The newly freed ‎slaves have to learn that owning things (including slaves) does not give them ‎carte blanche to do with their property as they please, but leaves them saddled with ‎responsibilities and obligations that may be more trouble than they are worth.‎ 

Once Bnei Yisrael have learned that lesson, they may be ready for the next ‎section: social and legal responsibility.  They can take on the obligations to be fair and ‎impartial, to be neither excessively for nor against the poor, to help the downtrodden, and ‎to give free loans.  These responsibilities are above and beyond those we have seen ‎before – charity often involves sacrificing that precious property for the benefit of others.  ‎Only once we have a coherent sense of the responsibilities that property carries in the ‎first place can we begin to understand what charitable behavior may entail.  And only ‎once we have a handle on the charitable ideas can we merit the next section of Mishpatim ‎‎– the laws and issues of living in Eretz Yisrael.‎ 


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