How do we interact with each other? How do we decide who is right in an argument? How do you assess the amount of damages a person has caused? All these questions are answered in Parshat Mishpatim, which contains many statutes governing interpersonal cases. Many Mishnas stating civil and tort law in Tractates Bava Metzia and Bava Kamma are based upon verses from this parsha. Reading over these verses now brings back many memories of learning Gemara in the past couple years, both in New York City and then in Israel, and is a reminder of the progress that I have made, from never reading Aramaic before and struggling to make out the words even with the vowels to now reading without the vowels with much more fluency, and fewer struggles.
Perhaps because the Jewish people were recently freed from their servitude, the laws at the beginning of the parsha deal with the acquisition and the subsequent redemption or emancipation of slaves. Slavery isn’t abolished but made more human and palatable. There are limits to the length of time and how the master can treat his servants. Rabbi David Fohrman makes a great point that while at first glance it seems strange for a father to sell his young daughter as a maidservant in the hope that the master will end up marrying her at a later date, this was actually allowing different families and social classes to intermingle that would normally have no interaction with each other. Something seeming inhumane is actually quite humane. Her chances of gaining a wealthy husband to lift her from poverty would be much smaller without this path laid out in the Torah.
The laws also contain allusions to our previous national history. In some aspects, they recall the Ten Commandments from last week. Rabbi Forhman also points out how the laws regarding one who kills unintentionally versus an intentional murderer and one who kidnaps his brother all recall incidents from Bereshit: Cain killing Abel, Ya’acov and Esau’s rivalry, and Yosef being sold by his brothers into slavery. Now that we are familiar with these situations, the Torah is advising us on how to handle them.
Part of a person’s spirituality comes from his relationship with Hashem, but part of it comes from his relationship with his fellow man, and how he treats another person is connected to his relationship with Hashem. When we honor someone else, we are honoring Hashem because everyone is made in the Divine Image. We are recognizing that we are part of the greater world and stepping outside ourselves, becoming partners with Hashem in the Creation of the world according to Hashem’s Will. It also means that we are affirming support for the higher principles underlying these laws and mitzvahs. It is in this parsha that the Jewish people utter the famous exclamation, “We will do and we will learn,” showing their willingness to fulfill the mitzvahs even before we understand them. We establish frameworks for how to legislate cases so that everyone is treated fairly and equitably and not subjects to the whim of a particular person.
I want to close with insight from Rabbi Mayer Friedman’s insight on the following verse: “And if men quarrel, and one strikes the other with a stone or with a fist, and he does not die but is confined to bed” (21:18)
He asks why does the Torah need scenarios to illustrate the laws of damages instead of just presenting the laws as they are? The Torah wants to show us that interpersonal damages usually have their roots in arguments. What starts as a quarrel, a disrespectful verbal argument, can deteriorate into a physical altercation. One person only strikes another if they are first fighting. Nothing good comes of a fight. The Torah explains this so that we can avoid these situations by avoiding arguments in the first place.
Of course, people have a right to respectfully disagree, but they cannot quarrel. It must always remain a conversation and never become adversarial. The Torah frowns upon disrespectful arguments, no matter what the context may be. By telling us the story of how a person may come to cause physical harm to his fellow, we learn a lot more about interpersonal relationships than just how to compensate for damages caused.
The Midrash on this verse adds that we should remember fighting never leads to peace. Sometimes people insist on arguing and believe that they can convince the other person to see things their way, thereby restoring peace. However, the truth is that fighting never has a peaceful outcome. The fallout of fighting can be both physical and spiritual. Rashi uses Lot as an example of someone who deteriorated spiritually as the result of a fight. Certainly, Lot was attracted to the culture of Sodom, but the only reason for his move there was because of his quarrel with Avraham and the disagreement between their shepherds.
We live in a world that is fractured and divided across many different lines, and I don’t purport to have any solutions to resolve these issues. It’s human nature to hold onto grudges and allow tensions and disagreements to build up like a balloon inside of us until we finally burst with an episode of anger and annoyance. We spend so much time wanting to express our worldview that we don’t take time to listen to anyone else’s. By dealing with an issue when it first arises rather than allowing the anger to fester, or by bringing the dispute to a third party for adjuration, then hopefully we can have more conversations where we are talking with each other rather than at each other.