In the next two weeks, we will read the Parashiyot of Yitro and Mishpatim. Rashi writes that the Halachot and Mitzvot given in the latter Parashah actually occur before Matan Torah, recorded in the former. While this is subject to a Machloket Rishonim, it is interesting to note that the Torah records the Pasuk containing Bnei Yisrael’s declaration of “Na’aseh VeNishma,” “We will do and we will listen,” associated with Matan Torah, at the end of Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot 24:7). Why would the Torah intentionally confuse its own chronological order, placing the final step of Matan Torah at the end of the next Parashah? What does the varied order teach us?
Perhaps, the Torah is instructing us that the Divine Law, represented in Yitro, and civil law, described in Mishpatim, are codependent; one cannot exist without the other. In order to appreciate Torah, we must conduct ourselves properly amongst each other. This is why Mishpatim interrupts, so to speak, the account of Matan Torah. However, Parashat Mishpatim still precedes the vast majority of the events of the giving of the Torah. In order to have a civil law system, we must first have a strong basis in the Emunah developed at Har Sinai. The laws found in Mishpatim are different from those of any other law system; the Torah’s dictates are based on human feelings and rights. Appearing in the Parashah is the commandment to lead one’s adversary’s ox before one’s own. This is an example of the uniqueness of Torah—a civil law statute based entirely on emotions.
We might also examine the two Parashiyot as though they are similar. Yitro, containing the seemingly broad Aseret HaDibrot, teaches us the general ideals of appropriate conduct, whereas Mishpatim, chock-full of lists of commandments, instructs us as to the specifics. The interchanging of the order teaches us that both are intrinsically necessary for our Avodat Hashem. We must obey the basic messages of the Torah, and lead our lives in accordance with them. At the same time, we must also not lose sight of the details that guide us in the pursuit of our Torah-oriented lives.
Mishpatim begins with the phrase (Shemot 21:1) “VeEilah HaMishpatim.” Noting the conjunctive Vuv, Rashi comments that this opening phrase connects Mishpatim to the previous Parashah, Yitro. Furthermore, Rashi expounds that these ordinances are given at Har Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Elsewhere, in Parashat BeHar, Rashi notes that all of the Mitzvot are given at Har Sinai; if this is the case, why then is it necessary to single out specifically these laws? There must be a special significance to these ordinances that warrant a specific comparison to the Ten Commandments.
However, what connection could there be between the laws of borrowing and the Ten Commandments? Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that if one violates monetary laws, he must deny the Ten Commandments and God’s existence. If one believes in God and the validity of his commandments, one would have no reason to cheat or steal. Rav Schwab expounds that those who cheat and prosper will never see any good come of their money.
Parashat Yitro presents the recurring theme of Lifnim MeShurat HaDin , going beyond the letter of the law. While in Mishpatim, we learn of the legal system, in Yitro, we learn the need to go above and beyond the letter of the law.
The following story (Bava Metzia 83a) highlights the importance of acting Lifnim MiShurat HaDin. A certain rabbi hired workers to help him move barrels. Some of the barrels broke during the work, and, as payment for the loss, the rabbi took the workers’ coats. When brought before Beit Din, the court ruled that although the rabbi could technically claim the coats as payment, he should return them and act Lifnim MeiShurat HaDin. As such, we see that there is a higher super-legal standard.
Ramban extends this principle further, and states that we should act above and beyond what is expected of us in our personal lives. The actions we take and activities in which we engage should go above and beyond expectations. It is not enough to do what is merely expected, but rather, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.
As such, we see that these Parashiyot are connected. Together they describe principles of necessity to live and thrive as a Jew. We should learn from these Parashiyot and internalize their messages of both abiding by the law and going above and beyond what is expected.