Today, I write in honor of girls joining Scouts BSA for the first time. Welcome!
Last week, in Parshat Yitro, we read about the giving of the Ten Commandments and Moses’ organization of courts of law at the suggestion of his father-in-law, Yitro. There are some interesting transitions in Yitro and this week’s parasha, Mishpatim (Ordinances).
The two events of Parshat Yitro have very different origins. God’s giving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai is filled with preparation of a divine and marvelous kind. First, long before the events in the parasha, the Israelites are taken out of Egypt with the signs and wonders God performs, culminating in the Ten Plagues that befall Egypt. As the Israelites flee, pursued by the Egyptians, God again intercedes by the splitting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians. The first weeks of the journey through the Wilderness are filled with additional miracles by which God gives the Israelites water and food. The Israelites are told to clean themselves physically and spiritually, and to stay at the base of Mount Sinai. There is thunder and lightning. Finally, God gives the Ten Commandments.
During the giving of the Ten Commandments, one interpretation is that after the people heard the first two commandments from God, the intense holiness made them afraid, and they told Moses, “You speak to us and we shall hear; let not God speak to us lest we die.” Thereafter, Moses taught the Israelites the other commandments.
After this, Yitro comes. (The parasha begins with Yitro coming before the verses about the Ten Commandments, but many Sages read the text to mean Yitro came later.) He sees that Moses spends all day judging cases between people, and is wearing himself out as well as making the people wait to have their cases heard. Yitro explains to Moses how to set up a system of courts, with Moses only deciding the most difficult cases. There is no change in nature indicating a miracle is occurring, no thunder and lightning, no ceremonial preparation. A man just gives his son-in-law some good advice.
In Parashat Mishpatim, we continue with Moses teaching the Israelites many other laws commanded by God, including how to deal justly with indentured servants (people who served for seven years) and what damages a person should pay to someone who is harmed by the person’s mistake or negligence.
So we see there is a the transition, from laws given by God with much preparation and ceremony, to the teaching and administration of the law by people. I learn two lessons from this.
First, while God gives the people the laws, the people determine how to administer the laws, thereby serving God.
Second, while we receive – or learn – the law in formal ways (we study it in school, we listen to our parents, we discuss it among ourselves), we apply the law in our own lives on the spur of the moment, each time we interact with someone.
So, now you see how you fit into the divine legal system. Now, be a good citizen (and Scout) and follow the law.