While Parashat Mishpatim is, for the most part, a primer in Jewish Civil Law, the last part of the parasha is much more eclectic. For instance, it introduces us to the three holidays, the shelosha regalim. This discussion is preceded by one short verse regarding Shabbat [Shemot 23:12]: “Six days you may do your work but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest and your maidservant’s son and the stranger shall be refreshed.” The association of Shabbat with holidays seems logical. Indeed, the Torah makes this association in other locations where the laws of the holidays are discussed. What seems illogical is a peculiar verse that serves as a buffer between the laws of Shabbat and the laws of the holidays [Shemot 23:13]: “Concerning all that I have said to you shall you beware, and the name of the gods of others you shall not mention; it shall not be heard through your mouth.” What on earth is this verse talking about? What does it have to do with Shabbat or holidays? And why does the prohibition of idolatry not appear any other time that Shabbat or holidays are mentioned in the Torah?
The commentators offer a wide range of explanations. Rashi suggests “that one should not say to another, ‘Wait for me beside such-and-such an idol,’ or ‘Meet me on the day [dedicated to] such-and-such an idol’. Another explanation: Concerning all that I have said to you, you shall beware, and the name of the gods of strangers you shall not mention [this comes] to teach you that idolatry is tantamount to all the commandments [combined], and whoever is careful with it is considered as if he has observed them all.” There is a rule that whenever Rashi brings two answers, it is because neither of them is particularly fulfilling. Neither of his answers clarifies why this verse is brought specifically here, between the laws of Shabbat and holidays.
Before proposing our answer, we should admit that the verse regarding Shabbat is not clear and simple, either. The reason we are told that we have been given Shabbat is purely utilitarian: So that our possessions can rest. Compare this to the commandment of Shabbat as it appears in the Ten Commandments, only three chapters earlier, in which we are told that we must keep Shabbat [Shemot 20:11] “For [in] six days Hashem made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, Hashem blessed the Shabbat day and sanctified it.” Keeping Shabbat to recognize Hashem’s mastery over the universe seems a whole lot more important than keeping Shabbat so that my donkey and my Filipino can get some well-deserved rest and relaxation.
In order to proceed, we’re going to learn about ISAAC, or “Irreducible Semi-Autonomous Adaptive Combat”. ISAAC is the brainchild of Andrew Ilachinski, a research analyst and project director at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Ilachinski specializes in Artificial Life and computational modelling of land combat. Here is what Dr. Ilachinski has to say about ISAAC: “Artificial-life techniques – specifically, agent-based models and evolutionary learning algorithms – provide a potentially powerful new approach to understanding some of the fundamental processes of combat. [We] take a step toward this goal by introducing [a] simple artificial-life-like ‘toy modes’ of land combat called ISAAC. [This model is designed] to illustrate how certain aspects of land combat can be viewed as emergent phenomena resulting from the collective, nonlinear, decentralized interactions among notional combatants. A bottom-up, synthesist approach to the modelling of combat… represents a preliminary step toward developing a complex systems theoretic analyst’s toolbox for identifying, exploring, and possibly exploiting self-organized emergent collective patterns of behaviour on the battlefield.” In layman’s terms, here is what ISAAC does: First it defines a battlefield made up of squares, like a chess board, and then two teams of “soldiers” are dispersed around the battlefield. At each turn all of a player’s soldiers move according to a set of simple well-defined rules. For instance, “If an enemy soldier is more than three squares away from you, then move one square in his direction”, or “If you are surrounded on three sides by the enemy then move one step backwards”. The rules are iteratively modified based upon some machine learning algorithm. The outcome takes the form of a simulation of the movement of soldiers on a battlefield. Here is the amazing thing: even though each soldier is operating by a small number of simple rules, the “armies” can learn to do some really complex things. For instance, an army can be taught to locate weak points in an enemy’s defence and charge through. It can be taught to capture and to defend territory or to encircle the enemy. This is called “emergent behaviour”, meaning that behaviour emerges on a macro level even though rules have been programmed only on a micro level. Little people doing little things are, in a very real sense, moving mountains. The individual person can’t see it from his point of view, but from a “G-d’s-eye view”, the emergent behaviour is strikingly clear.
Now we can to return to the verse commanding us to keep the Shabbat. We have always been taught that mitzvot were given to Am Yisrael in order to make us better people. The Midrash Tanchuma asks “What difference does it make to Hashem whether one slaughters from the front of the neck or the back of the neck? Rather the mitzvot were given in order to refine [man] (letzaref bahem et habriyot).” With certain mitzvot, such as tort law, it is obvious how adherence to the Torah makes a person more godly. With other mitzvot, such as kashrut or wearing tefillin, the connection is more convoluted, and may very well be beyond man’s capability of understanding. But whether or not we understand the rationale, we believe that each mitzvah is in some way moulding us into a better version of our selves. But maybe there’s more. Perhaps on some higher cosmic level, from some G-d’s-eye view, it is less important how the performance of a mitzvah affects the individual and more important how the performance of a mitzvah affects the universe. Perhaps the individual behaviours of individual Jews keeping certain mitzvot, mitzvot that they might consider to be trivial, causes emergent behaviour to transpire on a level that human beings cannot see. So when the Torah tells us that we should cease to perform our menial actions for one day each week, it is not because this is necessary to refine us as individuals, but, rather, “in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and your maidservant’s son and the stranger shall be refreshed”, because this is necessary in order to refine the universe.
The Torah reinforces this message in the next verse. The sin of idolatry is one of the three cardinal sins that we must never commit, even if it means sacrificing our lives. It would be fair to assume that we are commanded not to commit idolatry because this sin separates us from Hashem, our life source, our reason for existence. The Torah is telling us here that the effect of idolatry goes much further than breaking the bonds between man and Hashem. Now Rashi’s explanation makes much more sense: “Concerning all that I have said to you [in the previous verse, i.e. that your actions extend much further than you will ever know] you shall beware. The name of the gods of others you shall not [directly] mention; it shall not be heard through your mouth [even indirectly]”. It is not only important that we not speak the name of gods of others, but that the name of gods of others “shall not be heard” at all. We must not even be indirectly responsible for any kind of idolatry because even if it does not have any harmful effect on us, it has a most definite harmful effect on the world. Man’s point of view is limited and clouded. By definition, we will never have a G-d’s-eye view of the universe. We do as we are commanded with the belief that what we are doing will not only make us better people, but that it will, in some way, bring the world closer to redemption.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.
 This is very reminiscent of Conway’s Game of Life, see wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway’s_Game_of_Life.
 The other two are murder and adultery.