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Ordering Chaos

The presentation of the text found in parshat Mishpatim represents a significant departure from what we've encountered so far in the Torah. Up to now most of what we've read has been narrative, that is, stories about the lives of our most ancient ancestors. Now, however, the Torah text shifts from story telling to legislating. Instead of describing how named biblical characters interacted with one another we are presented with impersonal instructions and commandments prescribing how we are expected to act. This shift in the text reflects a shifting or reorientation that also unfolds in real life. What happens when this natural shifting is corrupted or impeded is described in the haftarah.

Until the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Torah tells the story of human experience through the perspective of an extended family. It does so with intimate glimpses into people's lives and tales of very humanly emotions such as love, jealousy and loneliness. Within the context of such intimate settings, impersonal rules are unnecessary because the consequences of hurtful or wrongful behaviors are readily noticeable and more easily addressed. Furthermore, the intimate nature of the smaller group often means that they share a common purpose towards which all members strive. Finally, any behavior that is inimical to the group's purpose will result in a response from the group or the leader further reducing the need to legislate what is or is not considered acceptable.

When our world grows beyond that of the family or small group then the intimacy and sense of shared purpose diminishes. Social norms and expectations become less clear. Different family, clan, or small group values and behaviors conflict with one another. Without some kind of order chaos and anarchy threaten the survivability of the aggregate of small groups of the larger society. This is exactly what the Torah describes as happening to the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. This is no longer an intimate clan of relatives. It is an inchoate nation of a "mixed multitude" struggling to find some order and shared purpose. Role modeling and peer pressure are no longer sufficient means of shaping and maintaining the group. Rules of order are required. Thus, we have arrived at parshat Mishpatim.

To live as part of a larger community requires a submission to rules, instructions, expectations and norms which are designed to allow its citizens (or group members) to pursue shared goals as well as sustain the collective, extended group or society. There is an underlying expectation of reciprocity. In exchange for following the rules we expect certain things in return. In religious language this is the essence of the covenant. It is reasonable that there should also be consequences for failing to follow the rules. This is the message of the haftarah. Specifically it cites the failing of the Jewish elite in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the First Temple to honor the commandment to release Jewish slaves from servitude after six years. The consequence of this breach of law, according to Jeremiah, was the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

An important underlying teaching contained in both parshat Mishpatim and Jeremiah is that real consequences follow from our actions. Refining this observation, we might ask regarding the Jewish community today in what way are we each individually responsible for shaping and maintaining the group? What are our shared goals? What positive consequences do expect from our community? What negative consequences will we accept? There is a famous Talmudic dictum which states that all of Israel is responsible for one another. But what exactly does this mean today?
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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