Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Mishpatim
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

Parshat Mishpatim

God and his Laws

Meet a God Who Prays The task of Israel is to make their own will like God's will, to be similar to Him, and, as such, to bring about the appearance of the Divine element in our worldly existence.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. A God Who Prays?
2. Law and Order

A God Who Prays?
In illuminating the opening words of this week's Torah portion - "And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them" - the Midrash brings a verse from the book of Tehillim :

"He relates His Word to Jacob..." - this refers to the commandments, "His laws and His judgements to Israel." - this refers to the ordinances. The ways of the Almighty are not like those of man. Man makes a practice of telling others to act, while he himself does absolutely nothing; yet, whatever God does, he tells the Jews to do and to guard.

The above can be understood in two different ways. According to the more plain understanding, what we have here is advice on how to go about teaching and educating the masses. Only when a leader or educator has perfected his own behavior, only when he himself performs perfectly that which he demands of others, will his words be accepted. From this rule we can gain fundamental insight concerning the proper way to bring estranged Jews closer to the study of Torah and the performance of Mitzvoth . Only when we ourselves have perfected our character traits to the point that nothing can stand in our way, will our words be heard and welcomed by the greater public.

Yet, it appears that in this Midrash the sages are attempting to make us aware of an even deeper concept. From the verse, "He relates His Word to Jacob, His laws and His ordinances to Israel," the sages deduce that the laws and ordinances which the Almighty related to Israel, to the Jews, are in fact the laws and ordinances of the Almighty Himself. The commandments are an expression, as it were, of the Divine essence. Judaism's 613 Mitzvoth correspond to the man's 248 limbs and his 365 veins. They - the Mitzvoth - fill man's entire existence with deep spiritual meaning. Man was created in God's image, and so, even in the Divine arena there exists an enumeration of "limbs and veins". Therefore, the Almighty Himself performs the Mitzvoth that he commanded Israel to perform.

This, then, is the central and complex message being conveyed in the words of the Midrash. It is for this reason that the sages did not say, "What God tells the Jews to do, He Himself does," rather, "Whatever God does, he tells the Jews to do and to guard."

The first Mitzvah which is mentioned in the Torah is the Mitzvah of Sabbath: "And on the seventh day He rested and relaxed." We find that the first to observe this commandment was God Himself. In addition, we find, according to the Talmud, that God prays. His prayer is that: "My mercy should conquer My anger." There are special prayers for God, and before Moses God appeared, crowned in Tefillin and wrapped in a Tallit .

The Mitzvoth, then, are the will of God not only because God wants the Jews to behave in this particular manner, but because they - the Mitzvoth - are His real and actual will, the revelation of the Divine essence in the world. The task of Israel is to make their own will like His will, to be similar to God, and, as such, to bring about the appearance of the Divine element in our worldly existence.

Initially, the world was created through the attribute of Divine judgement. This attribute is characterized by order, structure, and a clear plan for the existence of the world in accordance with the values of Divine justice and righteousness, for "judgement belongs to God" (Deuteronomy 1:17). Therefore, the sages have taught that each judge who performs upright judgement becomes a partner with God in the creation of the world; the attribute of judgement is the attribute tied to the creation of the world, and the performance of fair judgement serves to provide continued existence and protection to the desired Divine order in the world - the order which was implanted in the world since its very creation. God places the responsibility for the continued existence of creation's world order on the nation of Israel: "And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them"

Law and Order
Our Torah portion deals primarily with the topic of civil law. Concerning such dealings the sages have taught: "One who wishes to attain wisdom, [is advised to] occupy himself with civil law." In dealing with these laws the human intellect enjoys plenty of space in which to distinguish itself. Because the importance of logical argument is so great here, one who wishes to sharpen his intellect and to increase his wisdom is advised to "occupy himself with civil law."

From the Scriptural passage, "Whoever has a problem can go to them," the Talmud attempts to derive the well-known rule that one who lays claim to an object in another person's possession must first bring proof of ownership. Yet, in the end, such a derivation is discarded on the grounds that, "What do we need Scriptural proofs for when logic itself dictates such a rule: The one who is in pain, he goes to the doctor." With these words the sages teach a great and important lesson: The value of pure human logic is equal to that of a verse from the Torah, and such logic establishes laws which are themselves considered Torah.

In the Midrash to our portion the sages teach:
Moses demonstrated self-sacrificed for three things which were, in turn, named after him: the nation of Israel, the Torah, and the laws. The nation of Israel - how much he suffered on their behalf! - were named after him, as it is written, "Then, he remembered the past, Moses, and his people;" the Torah, as it is written, "Remember the Torah of Moses, my servant;" and the laws, as it says, "And these are the laws that you shall place before them."

One might ask: "Are not the laws themselves part of the Torah? If so, why does the Midrash make a distinction between the laws and the Torah? In light of the above, though, we now understand that the laws enjoy a special status of their own due to the fact that they constitute a Torah which stems from the intrinsic human vitality of the nation. In order to attain the laws, along with their special status, for the people of Israel, Moses sacrificed himself greatly, just as he sacrificed himself in order to guarantee the presence of the Torah amongst the people and the existence of the Nation itself.

Nonetheless, civil laws were included in the Torah. This was done in order to teach us that even in civil law there are Divine guidelines which are above and beyond human reasoning. Rabbi Nisim ben Reuven Gerondi, the Ran , explains that the difference between the laws of Israel and those of the other nations is that the purpose of the laws of the nations is to establish law and order, thus assuring the continued existence of civilization, because, "were it not for the fear of the kingdom men would swallow each other alive." Yet, the purpose of the laws of the Jews is to cause the dwelling of the Divine Presence in Israel. The laws of the Torah have been given to us by God, and, even in those cases where they are dictated by human reasoning, their foundation is in Divine logic.

Torah - The Five Books of Moses
Mitzvoth - Commandments
Midrash - An exposition of Scripture, or collection of such, by the early Sages
Tehillim - Psalms
Tefillin - Phylacteries

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