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.