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Law of Life
Laws come in two flavors: Laws that create life, and laws that are created by life. We associate the first type with natural laws: those that govern natural processes such as birth and death; growth; health; and illness. Then there are laws created by life, the laws that we come up with through a legislative process. Laws that are binding upon us because we choose to accept them; because they make sense to us on some level and are in accord with the moral and ethical principles we have established as a society.

Laws derived by human intellect are different in every time and place, according to those particular conditions. The Divine laws written in the Torah, on the other hand, as described in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, are in the category of “laws that create life.” Just as G-d created the world to operate under certain conditions, He also gave human beings laws to govern their interpersonal behavior, to ensure a smoothly functioning society. G-d’s laws are ultimately just and are true in every time and place, under any conditions.

The Torah portion of Mishpatim begins with G-d’s command to Moses: “And these are the laws that you shall place before them.” From the words “before them,” our sages have learned several things. One is that the laws should be taught with reasons and explanations so they are thoroughly understood on a logical basis. Our sages have likened this approach to a “set table,” or Shulchan Aruch in Hebrew. (Shulchan Aruch is also the title of a classic compendium on Jewish law, authored by Rabbi Joseph Karo.)

The first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, offers another interpretation: “Before them” means “in a manner that they will internalize.” The Torah’s teachings should permeate a person to every layer of their psyche, to the essence of the soul.
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Divine commandments are divided into three categories: Chukim, eidot and mishpatim. Chukim refer to laws that have no rational explanation, such as the prohibition of eating non-kosher food. While various explanations have been proposed for why G-d forbade certain foods and permitted others, the essence of the matter is that we keep kosher because G-d so commanded, not because of any logical reason. Then there are the eidot, or testimonials. These are mitzvot that G-d gave us to commemorate certain events or to demonstrate our bond with Him. Examples include keeping Shabbat, to memorialize the seven days of creation; and hanging a mezuzah on our doorpost to remind us of G-d’s laws and to merit Divine protection.

The third category, mishpatim, are laws that are rational, which the human mind could have easily come up with. These are logical laws governing interpersonal behavior, and even if G-d had not given us the Torah, we would have come up with some sort of legal system on our own.

Yet the command to present these laws “as a set table,” with reasons and explanations, so that it grips the person internally, is given for the mishpatim – those that would be understood anyway. Not for the chukim or eidot, with which a person might struggle to understand.

Presenting these laws “before them” is intended to emphasize that all commandments must be kept because they are Divine laws, not because we personally agree with them. This is self-evident with chukim and eidot, which we are unlikely to have come up with on our own. The mishpatim, though, are laws that we can understand, and for this reason we need a special appeal to the “essence of our soul,” to fulfill these commandments only because G-d commanded us. At the same time, we need to understand these laws thoroughly with our intellect, so that we apply all our faculties to fulfilling the mitzvot.

 

 


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