OzTorah: Torah reading – Mishpatim

Written and Submitted by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple



People who look for spirituality generally seem to have no patience for this week’s reading.

What does the sidra deal with? Crimes and torts, dangers and damages – not the eternal soul and spirit, but the earthly body. All of a sudden the Torah seems to have dizzily descended from the heights of Divine revelation to nitty-gritty details of legal penalties, of courts, judges, witnesses and sheriffs.

All is part of Judaism. Yet the Talmud says something rather strange about these legal matters. It says,

“Whoever wants to be a chasid – a pious person – should fulfil the words of ‘N’zikin’ (the laws of damages)” (Bava Kamma 30a).

This statement can’t be a mere bad joke since the Talmud doesn’t give the impression of jocularity, but if there is a serious side to this dictum of Rav Yehudah we want to know what it is.

What the Talmud is getting at is that spirituality is not just prayer and reflection, a relationship between man and God, but a pragmatic matter of how people deal with each other. The thinking is that if human beings live together in peace, love and harmony, they are not likely to hurt one another. If there is mutual respect between citizens, society is likely to be a sound, just and happy place where God is a benign, smiling Presence in its midst.

An unjust society, on the other hand, cannot be a spiritual society, because God does not feel welcome in its midst.

No wonder the Torah says in Parashat T’rumah, which we will read next week: “Let them make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8).


Parashat Mishpatim is central to the Torah code of civil law. Every culture needs its “Mishpatim”. Without a legal system, no culture can survive. That’s one of the ideas that Judaism has contributed to civilisation. Every group – even criminals – needs values, standards and conventions.

Sporting clubs, musical societies, political parties, professional bodies, Masonic lodges, whatever example you choose – all have their accepted ways of doing things and their own ways of dealing with infractions. In this sense each group is almost like a religion.

Max Otto (1876-1968) says this about science in his “Science and the Moral Life” (page 21):

“Science has its sacred buildings, its mysteries, its esoteric language, its priests and acolytes. To get on the inside takes years of preparation, a ceremony of initiation, disciplined training…”

The difference between these examples and Judaism is that whilst they arrive at their codes and conventions after trial and error, Judaism believes that the way to act comes from God. The Almighty is not only concerned with how we think and feel and how we relate to others (and to ourselves); He is concerned with how we manage our society – how we turn a community into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).


What a provocative passage:

“And Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and 70 elders of Israel ascended, and they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the heavens for purity… they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Ex. 24: 9-11).

Everything Jewish cries out against interpreting these words literally. Ex. 33:20 warns us,

“You cannot see My Presence, for no human can see Me and live”.

Deut. 4:12,15 insists that no physical form was seen when God spoke at Chorev. Yet in our passage there seems to be such gross physicality that we are offended to read it.

Unlike the mystics of the Kabbalah, the rationally minded reader finds it too hard to cope with such verses. For them it is easier to follow the Targum Onkelos, which views the Torah as saying,

“They beheld the majesty of the God of Israel”, or to understand “saw” in a metaphorical sense, i.e. not that they actually saw God, which is a logical impossibility in view of the fact that He has no material shape or form, but they perceived His overwhelming Presence. If an analogy is necessary, think of the fact that sometimes we say, “I see the point”, which does not mean physical but metaphorical perception.

Presuming that this is the meaning of “they saw”, how do we handle the statement that “under His feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire”?

Here too we cannot read the words literally. If God has no body, how can He have feet? Sforno finds an approach to the answer in Isa. 66:1, which says that the earth is God’s footstool. In this sense our verse is saying that the beauty of the earth testifies to the greatness of the Creator.

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple Blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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