Exodus 21:1- 24:18
I Samuel 20:18-42
"And these are the judgments which you shall set before them" (Exodus 21:1). This verse precedes a section of the Torah that contains a series of laws that are very different from the moral precepts laid down in the Ten Commandments, which we read in last week's parashah.
Mishpatim presents us with the concept that the mitzvot (commandments) between man and his fellow man (as opposed to those between man and G-d) are more than societal or principled teachings, as they are so often viewed by the secular world. They are religious precepts.
Superficially, these rules may appear to relate to mundane matters not usually connected with religion at all — laws such as those dealing with the compensation due to the owner of an ox gored by someone else's ox or with the restitution that had to be paid to someone who lent somebody an article that was lost or broken. What all of this has to do with religion marks one of the great distinctions of Judaism. The frequently espoused platitude that all religions are essentially the same is misleading at best.
Judaism is unique in its goal of regulating life in its entirety, not some aspects of our existence and our enterprises but all of it, not certain hours of the day or week but 24/7. Judaism doesn't draw a fine line between the secular and the sacred. The fact that all things may be regarded as sacred in Judaism is one of its most magnificent characteristics. Someone once said, "There is no secular Judaism," and although this may come as a shock to many, there is much truth in this view.
An illustration of this point can be found in Exodus 23:4-5. "If you meet your enemy's ox or donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you falling under his heavy burden, and you are disinclined to help him, you must, nevertheless, help him."
This passage contains a message of great importance, but what is its underlying purpose? Is it all about kindness to animals? Must we return the straying animal to avoid an accident that might befall it or its possible starvation? Are we asked to help the animal staggering under a heavy load for the animal's sake? Undoubtedly, this is a component.
The Torah speaks frequently of our obligation to show consideration for beasts of burden. This is not, however, the most important message here. Here, the most striking word in certainly "enemy." The law is obviously addressing human relationship. The animal is mentioned only as an illustration.
The Torah addresses human nature as it exists. People will quarrel. However much peace may be held up as an ideal, and however much it may be desired, personal interests will collide, causing friction between people. Unless human nature is radically altered, the relations of a man with his neighbor will continue to be disturbed by difference of opinions or interests, sometimes resulting in open hostility.
While the Torah consistently holds up the ideals of peace and unity as necessary goals, it recognizes that friends may fall out and ties of fellowship may be broken. In an effort, however, to avoid the worst consequences of such antagonism, the Torah exhorts us not to deliberately intensify any bad feelings that already exist. If you give in to the temptation to ignore your enemy's lost animal and he becomes aware of this, the bitterness and enmity will, of course, increase. On the other hand, if you rise above your hurt feelings and do a kindness, there is at least the chance that this may ultimately restore a harmonious relationship.
The Torah principle is that if quarrels are unavoidable, they don't have to last forever. If peace is broken, the rupture doesn't have to be irreparable. We don't need to add fuel to the flames of ill feelings or take pleasure in the blaze. We do need to do all we can to extinguish it. These are simple but wise rules.
This approach should not in any way, however, be confused with the doctrine of "turning the other cheek." While this philosophy sounds fine in theory, it has the demonstrable defect of being utterly unattainable.
The Torah works with our nature, not against it, to help us to change the secular into the sacred, to raise us to our full potential in practical and "doable" increments. If we follow the guidelines set down for us we will have taken a big step toward the idealistic goal proclaimed by all religions — the brotherhood of man.