In parshat Yitro we relived the giving of the Torah. We stood at Mount Sinai, saw the voices and heard the lightening. We have been transformed by the revelations and are literally shining with new powers. All of us - every Jewish soul from all the generations - were there and we all proclaimed together with one enthusiastic voice, "We will uphold the commandments." It is with this new consciousness and commitment that we begin this new week, the portion of Mishpatim, meaning "laws" of the Torah.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that this reading is the 18th in the annual cycle. The number 18 in gematria spells "chai", meaning "life". Yitro is the 17th portion, and 17 is the numerical equivalent of the word "tov", meaning "good". This teaches us that our greatest power as Jews is not our revelations (demonstrated in parashat Yitro) but rather our ability to express that power in this physical world through living our intellectual understanding and observance of the commandments (in parashat Mishpatim). Yes, revelations of Torah are good, and there is no good without Torah, but performing the commandments is life.

Proceeded by the giving of the Torah, the first law actually discussed is "When you buy a Hebrew slave...", a discussion of a Jew who was sold by the court to pay off the debts of his stealing. However strange that might seem, it appropriately reflects our mindset, our first thought after receiving the Torah: that we are all servants of the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

If [in Hebrew, "ki"] you see your enemy's donkey struggling under its load and you are reluctant to assist, you should most certainly go to help. (Ex. 23:5)

Rashi explains that the first word in this verse can either be translated as "when" or "if". The main meaning is "when" - anytime you see such a situation you should help. The implication of "if" is to excuse a person under certain circumstances from having to help; for instance, an elderly person for whom it would be difficult to help is not required to.

We should see the body as a vehicle that will help us attain our goal….

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement, explains the verse on a completely different level. The word for "donkey" in Hebrew is "chamor", which has the same letters as the word "chomer", meaning "physical matter".The physical matter that is most closely connected to us is the body; therefore, he reads the verse as: "If you see the body, which is controlled by your negative inclination struggling under its burden... (whether it be illness, the struggle for a livelihood, a fight against physical desires, etc.), you most certainly should help by relieving the burden. The Baal Shem Tov was adamant to change the prevailing custom of those spiritual seekers of the previous generations who would try to crush the body's will with self-flagellation such as fasting and rolling in snow. He encouraged more of a partnership. How? By partaking of the physical world, but in a moderate way that serves G‑d. We should see the body as a vehicle that will help us attain our goal. I once heard it said that in relation to food, the test today is not to break your desire to eat but rather to eat healthy foods in a manner that is healthy for the body.

There are various laws concerning theft in this portion. One of the most famous is that if a thief is caught with a stolen item, he is required to return double its value (i.e. the item plus its value again) to the owner. Why specifically double and not ten times or only one and a half? The logical answer is that the thief is made to suffer exactly the damage he tried to cause the owner. If he doesn't have the resources, he is sold into slavery for a limited time and the purchase price is used to pay his debt. There is an important point to understand here: We do not find anywhere in the Torah the use of imprisonment as a punishment, so common today. The reason is that the Torah values positive action. Prison, whose entire purpose is to limit freedom of action, is against all that the Torah stands for.


Parashat Yitro ends with a discussion of the building of the altar - the place where offerings to G‑d were brought. Next week's portion is called "Terumah" and deals with the construction of the Tabernacle where gold, silver and copper are used extensively. Why is Mishpatim between these two? The commentator Oznayim LaTorah answers that the Almighty hates theft, and therefore, after speaking about the alter that was made from earth and stones, materials that have almost no economic value, and before commanding us on the donation of gold and other precious metals, the Torah warns us: In all of these statues connected to business, each person should be exacting with his money and gold etc., to be certain that they are properly acquired according to the Torah. Only then can we move on to the building of the Tabernacle.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul

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