From the lofty heights of Sinaitic principles in the form of Ten Commandments, this week’s Torah reading,”Mishpatim,” laws or ordinances, descends onto the plateau of everyday details that give direction and structure to our daily lives. From regulations guiding our behavior toward the stranger and the unprotected to ritual matters that touch upon our diets and harvest celebrations, the law embraces the totality of our existence with its inhibiting limitations of spontaneous impulses that simmer within the human heart .
To many such legal restriction is regarded as a burden, an infringement on the fullness of freedom that human instinct demands. Such control calls forth resistance, at times violent rebellion . Thus the antinomian strain within human experience.
In stark opposition to Judaism’s demands of fulfilling the law as a path to redemption, early Christianity, in the words of Paul, declared the liberation from the law by way of faith in Jesus as the preferred way to personal salvation. True freedom was found in faith while subservience to the Law was regarded as secondary at best , and at worst, the continuation of spiritual slavery.
Mishpatim’s centrality in Judaism is unmistakable. For the Jew, law is not a burden but the highest gift of God to humanity. Not only abstract generalizations but especially the nitty-gritty of discerning the just and the righteous within the murky messiness of everyday human activity and struggle is the task of Torah. To eke out a spark of justice from the clouds of human greed, fear and violence is the great moral mandate of the Jewish ideal.
At the conclusion of God’s dramatic revelation we are told that Moses entered into the fog, the thick cloud,the “arafel," out of which God spoke and enumerated the myriad rules contained in the Sabbath reading of this coming week.
The great achievement of the legal enterprise in human life is its process of shedding the light of civility and responsibility upon the domains of human activity that are shrouded in confusion and chaos. Law gives us order and predictability, and as such it frees us from the dread of utter fear and insecurity.
It is no surprise that the rabbis regarded the student of Torah as the authentic liberated individual. It was through the commitment to the Law that the Jew discovered her freedom. For this he continues to be grateful, thankful for the most precious of all gifts, that of Torah, as God’s most cherished expression of love and concern.