Seeing Laws as Moral Principles of Jewish Life | Aleph Beta

Can Laws Be Meaningful?

Seeing Laws As Moral Principles Of Jewish Life

Immanuel Shalev


In this week's Parsha (Exodus 21:1–24:18) we are in the midst of two of the most well known and epic stories in the entire Tanach: Revelation at Sinai and the Sin of the Golden Calf. The Israelites experience their highest high and their lowest low, all within the same few verses. However, smack in the middle of these two legendary episodes, we are forced to read law after law after law. How can we understand these moral laws as meaningful principles of Jewish life, and not just a long list of rules we must live by?

Join us this week as we explore these biblical laws and find out how they add layers of complexity to the epic highs and lows of the Revelation story. In this video, we uncover how laws are not just moral principles to which we must adhere, but a hidden guide on how to infuse spirituality into our daily lives. Laws give us the actionable items through which we can spread the values of Judaism, just as God instructed Abraham thousands of years ago.

Join Imu and Ramie as they demonstrate how these laws are an embodiment of the Jewish principles of life.

Dig Deeper:


Ramie: Welcome to Parshat Mishpatim.

Immanuel: Wait a second….who are you and where is David Block!?

Ramie: Great question, Imu! My name is Ramie Smith, you usually don't see me because I am working behind the scenes as executive producer, but today, I'm filling in for David while he's at a conference repping Aleph Beta.

Immanuel: Ohhhh, I knew I recognized you from somewhere…well, welcome, Ramie! Let me catch you up. We're smack in the the middle of one of the most exciting stories in the Torah. Last week in Parshat Yitro, we experienced national Divine revelation for the first time when we received the Ten Commandments. But before we get to our next big story, the sin of Golden Calf, the text takes a major digression. Chapters and chapters of... just…laws.

Understanding Jewish Laws in the Bible

Ramie: What's going on here? Our stories, our narrative, gets interrupted. And, we've had laws before, but never this many and never in one shot… this is almost an entire parsha of laws!

Immanuel: And the laws themselves aren't that exciting… there are intricate laws about damages, judicial systems...Couldn't God have first finished the story and then put the laws maybe in an appendix? Why do we get all these laws, and why here, in the middle of a story?

Ramie: Let's explore this together, this week on the Parsha Experiment.

Immanuel: Let's bring up our 20-second parsha recap.

  • We get three chapters of laws: criminal law, damages, torts, laws about sexual ethics, social justice, setting up a judicial system, and a few about serving God
  • God talks about the benefits of keeping these laws
  • Moses tells the laws to the people, who commit to them by famously saying נעשה ונשמה – we will listen and do!
  • Moses, Aaron, and the elders ascend Sinai and see a vision of God
  • Finally, Moses goes up to the mountain to get the tablets.

Ramie: So what are all these laws doing here, interrupting our story? We may find the answer by looking at a few of the laws themselves. And as we do, ask yourself: What do the laws remind you of?

Is There Any Meaning Behind Biblical Law?

Immanuel: We have laws about one who hits someone and ends up killing him: מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת. There are laws about kidnapping: וְגֹנֵב אִישׁ וּמְכָרוֹ – if one steals a person and sells him. We learn about וּמְקַלֵּל אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ – one who curses his parents.

Ramie: Let's stop here. Do these three categories of laws, together, remind you of anything? Laws about killing, stealing, disrespecting one's parents? It's reminiscent of the Ten Commandments! לֹא תִרְצָח – Do not kill, לֹא תִגְנֹב – do not steal, כַּבֵּד אֶת-אָבִיךָ, וְאֶת-אִמֶּךָ – respect your parents. Now, you might be thinking, "Ya, but those are just three laws that happen to also be in the Ten Commandments. It doesn't mean that there's any real connection."

Immanuel: But we want to suggest that there is… that the Ten Commandments are actually principles, and the laws of Mishpatim are the many applications of those larger principles. The Ramban, Nachmanides, actually suggests that these laws are related to the Ten Commandments, but he doesn't show us how. We want to try to uncover some of those connections.

Ramie: As we saw, some of these laws – like not killing, not stealing, honoring one's parents – fit really obviously into some of the Ten Commandments. Those are the easy ones. Other laws, though, seem to have nothing to do with any of the Ten Commandments. But when we look at the language of those laws, we may start to notice remarkable connections.

Biblical Connections to Jewish Laws

Immanuel: Let's take a look. The very first laws in the parsha have to do with servitude. On the surface, there's nothing in the Ten Commandments that has anything to do with slavery. But take a look at the language: כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי – when you acquire a Hebrew slave, שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד – he'll work for you for six years, וּבַשְּׁבִעִת--יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי, חִנָּם – and in the seventh year, he'll go free. What does that remind you of in the Ten Commandments? Working for six, stopping to work in the seventh? That's the Sabbath, the fourth of the Ten Commandments! שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד – For six days you shall work… וְיוֹם, הַשְּׁבִיעִי--שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה כָל-מְלָאכָה – and the seventh day shall be a Sabbath to God… you shall not do any work!

Ramie: By recalling the same language, the Torah seems to be telling us that these laws of servitude are somehow connected to the Sabbath. But how could that be? Of course, servitude has nothing to do with actually keeping the Sabbath...unless there's more to Sabbath than we think.

Laws as the Moral Principles of Jewish Life

Immanuel: Laws usually require certain actions. Pay your taxes. Stop at a red light. Many of the Torah's laws are the same way. But the laws aren't just about the actions themselves. They're expressions of higher principles. Here's just one example. Paying taxes is an expression of a commitment to the larger system we choose to be a part of. It pays for roads, protection, natural parks, and infrastructure that society as a whole benefits from… even if we don't partake in every aspect of it. In our parsha, by connecting certain laws in Mishpatim to the Ten Commandments, perhaps the Torah is teaching exactly this perspective about the purpose of laws. While two laws might not look the same in action, they may be two different expressions of one similar principle.

Ramie: Why would there be any time limit to how long you can have a servant? Well, when you – the master – are forced to free a servant, it's a reminder that you're not really the master. You don't own the servant… you don't own anything. God is the only master. If that's what the laws of servitude are about, and the laws are connected to the Sabbath, what does that tell us about the underlying values of the Sabbath? When we keep the Sabbath, we testify to the creation of the world – God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. But the laws of servitude show us that this principle goes even deeper. Sabbath is also a reminder that we're not the creators. Throughout the week, we work and we create and it feels like we're in control. One day a week, we disconnect and reflect on God's creation. We remind ourselves that we're not the masters, that the world doesn't work according to our rules.

Applying Jewish Laws and Rules to Our Life

Immanuel: Look at what's happening here. It's not only that the laws in Mishpatim are applications of the Ten Commandments… they're actually a commentary on them. The laws add a new level of depth and teach something fundamental about the value that each of the Ten Commandments promotes.

Let's take a look at another law in our parsha. "לֹא תִשָּׂא, שֵׁמַע שָׁוְא" – "Do not give a false report" about someone in court. Now, if you only looked at the concept here, you might say, "That fits into ninth of the Ten Commandments: לא תענה ברעך עד שקר – Don't give false testimony. But again, look at the language. It's almost exactly the language used in the third of the Ten Commandments. לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת-שֵׁם-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לַשָּׁוְא – don't take God's name in vain. It feels like these two laws are inescapably related… but how? What does not spreading a false report have to do with using God's name in vain?

Ramie: What happens when you spread a false report about someone? You're not just giving people false information… you're taking something crucial to one's identity and abusing it. Perhaps that's what's happening in the third commandment too. It's not just about using God's name out of context... Throughout the Torah, God's name is the way in which God relates to us and how we relate to Him. Not taking God's name in vain is about not belittling or devaluing who God is.

The Life Principles Hidden in Jewish Laws

Immanuel: Again, the expansion of the laws in our parsha teaches something fundamental about the principles that underlie the laws. Let's look at one more example. In Mishpatim, it says: כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן – you shall not oppress any widow or orphan. Again, oppression of widows or orphans doesn't seem to be in the Ten Commandments…but what does this language remind you of?

Ramie: We actually just saw it: The ninth of the Ten Commandments is: לֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר – which is generally translated as: "Do not bear false testimony against your friend." That's that same phrase used in our parsha – כָּל-אַלְמָנָה וְיָתוֹם, לֹא תְעַנּוּן. But what in the world does not mistreating a widow or an orphan have to do with not being a false witness??

Immanuel: In Mishpatim, the phrase "לא תענון" means, "don't mistreat." If you apply that same definition to the Ten Commandments, לֹא-תַעֲנֶה בְרֵעֲךָ עֵד שָׁקֶר doesn't just mean "don't bear false testimony against a friend." It means "don't mistreat your friend by bearing false testimony."

Ramie: And that forces us to transform our understanding of this law. Personally, I've always wondered why bearing false witness would make the Ten Commandments. It's important, but it doesn't feel 'top ten' worthy.

Immanuel: But this may be the answer… it's much more fundamental than not testifying falsely. תַעֲנֶה seems to be a word that describes oppression of those with power against the less powerful. Widows and orphans are examples of people who are so often left powerless and alone. The law is about not using your power to exploit those less fortunate, and maybe that's what the Torah is teaching when it says "Don't bear false witness." When you testify in court, you are in a position of tremendous power. In a very real way, you can control the fate of the ones about whom you testify… while they themselves can usually do nothing. Again, not only do the laws in Mishpatim recall the Ten Commandments, but they also transform the way we understand their underlying principles.

Ramie: Now, there are so many laws in this parsha, and we can't explore all of them or show how they all fit into one of the ten categories. But hopefully, these few examples give you a taste of what's going on, and provide a lens that you can use to explore the rest of the laws on your own.

Let's return to our earlier question. Why are these laws here, in between the epic stories of Revelation and the Golden Calf?

How Laws Guide the Principles of Jewish Life

Immanuel: Last week, in Parshat Yitro, we discussed one aspect of Israel's experience at Sinai: Revelation – direct interaction with God – erased all doubts about whether God was really with Israel, really cared about them. But there's one more important thing that happened at Sinai, too. As the people stood at Sinai, God said: וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ – you, Israel, will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. They were given a mission: To become people who spread God's values to the rest of the world...which is precisely the mission that Abraham was given! This is how blessing would come to the rest of the world! But how is Israel supposed to spread God's values? Parshat Mishpatim may be the answer.

The people just got the Ten Commandments. And you know why those laws are such a big deal? They aren't just laws… they're moral principles. And the laws in Mishpatim – right after the Ten Commandments, while the people are still at Sinai – are the ways in which we live those larger values in our everyday lives. That's what all laws are really about! They're not oppressive restrictions or annoying rules… they're manifestations of our values. God doesn't want us to just keep a law in the Ten Commandments here, and a law in Mishpatim there. It's about recognizing the bridge that ties them together – that principle itself. Laws are God's beautiful way of teaching us how to inculcate moral values within ourselves in our day to day lives.

Jewish Rules and Laws That We Can Live By

Ramie: And that's how Israel is meant to accomplish its mission. God doesn't appear at Sinai and just explicitly tell Israel all of His lofty values. Then they would just remain pie-in-the-sky ideals. Instead, God gives them laws. Actionable items that will show them what those values look like and how to acquire them. Israel's job is not just to preach God's values, but to live and model the principles in our everyday lives… and these laws teach us how to do just that.

Immanuel: Join us next week as we tackle the Tabernacle, on the Parsha Experiment.

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