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Two Parts of the Covenant – Yithro and Mishpatim

Author: Esther Ehrman, Shevat 5765/Feb 2005

Two consecutive weekly sections of the Torah read at this time of year are Yithro and Mishpatim. The section named Yithro contains the Ten Commandments; the section named Mishpatim contains a considerable number of social ordinances. These ordinances (as S.R.Hirsch translates the word mishpatim) cover much of the same ground as do the Ten Commandments, yet the perspective seems very different. I would like to place these differences into a possible context.

Both sets of commandments are parts of the formal Covenant that takes place at Mount Sinai with a formal ritual executed by Moses (twelve stones and sprinkling of blood) and a formal acceptance by the Children of Israel. The people are told that if they will keep the commandments and the Covenant, they will be rewarded with 'holiness' ( kedusha). The wording for this is significant:

Yithro, Ex.19, 5,6 reads:

If you will earnestly hearken to My voice and keep My Covenant, you will belong to Me exclusively among all the nations, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation ( ve atem tiheyu li mamlechet kohanim ve GOY KADOSH). This statement precedes the Ten Commandments. Sforno explains that 'goy kadosh' here means that the nation would be destined to be eternal; a 'holy' nation is everlasting, since our Sages have taught us that ma kadosh le olam kayam, af hem(zadikim) le olam kayamin), just as holiness exists for ever, so they (the righteous) exist for ever (Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 92A).

Mishpatim, Ex.22,30 reads:

And you shall be to Me men of a holy calling,( ve ANSHEI KODESH tiheyun li)

Malbim comments on this verse 'you shall be Mine so that you shall not be subject to nature (she lo tiheyu tachat ha teia). The verse follows a long list of ordinances.

Is there a difference in kind between the holiness of the 'holy people', the 'goy kadosh' blessed with immortality in the context of the Ten Commandments and the 'anshei kodesh', the 'men of a holy calling', not subject to the laws of nature, associated with the social ordinances, the 'mishpatim'..

Let us examine a few examples of the perspective shown in the two Torah sections. The first of the Ten Commandments has 'I am the Lord your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage' – out of slavery. The section named Mishpatim also opens with slaves, 'If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve you six years' (Ex.21,2), followed by a number of instructions on the rights of a Hebrew slave, the limitations on his servitude, his entitlement to freedom and conditions of service.

In the Ten Commandments the Almighty introduces and identifies Himself as the one who freed the Children of Israel from slavery. They will now serve Him. If the section Mishpatim were some kind of elaboration of the Ten Commandments, we might here expect to find instructions on that service to Him, sacrifices, priestly functions. Instead, we are given social ordinances on how to treat our fellow men.

If we look at the commandments concerning the Sabbath, we find similar distinctions made in the two Torah sections. 'Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour and do all your work (melachteicha) and the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your G-d. You shall do no work thereon, you, nor your son nor you daughter, nor your manservant nor your maidservant nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days, G-d made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is therein and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy' (Ex.20, 8-11). The sanctity (kedusha) here is based on the fact hat the Almighty sanctified it because He rested at the end of His six days of Creation. We, who are created in His image, remember that Creation and that rest by resting from any 'creation' of ours.

If we now look at the Mishpatim section, Ex.23,12 that is not the only understanding and function of the Sabbath. Here we read 'Six days shall you do your tasks (ma'aseicha, not melachteichta) and on the seventh day you shall rest so that your ox and your donkey may rest and that the son of your handmaid and your stranger may recover'. No connection is made here with the Creator resting, no mention is made of your son and daughter, there is nothing about blessing the day or sanctifying it. Instead, we are given as reason for the observance of the Sabbath practical considerations for the well being, the resting of our fellow creatures, beginning with the cattle.

One more example: 'Thou shalt not kill' of the Ten Commandments in Yithro. This commandment is between man and man. And yet, like the other eight, it can be understood in the context of the first Commandment, 'I am the Lord...'. We are not to destroy a creature, man, made in the image of G-d.

In the Mishpatim section, Ex.21, 12ff, this becomes a set of instructions for the death penalty, required for premeditated murder, for striking or cursing your parents, for kidnapping and selling a person. The considerations here, too, are society, not –at any rate obviously – service to the Almighty. What is more, we find that 'thou shalt not kill' is not absolute; there are circumstances when you are to kill.

We thus seem to have two distinct parts to the Covenant made at Mount Sinai between the Almighty and the Children of Israel. And the Children of Israel give a statement of acceptance, 'We shall do', na'ase to each part separately. In Yithro, Ex.19, Moses summons the elders and then 'placed before them all these words that G-d had commanded him. All the people answered with one voice and said: All that Go-d has spoken we will do, (na'ase) Moshe brought the words of the people back to G-d' (v7,8). They give their agreement right at the outset.

In Mishpatim Ex.24,v.3 , at the end of an extensive list or ordinances, we read: 'And Moses came and told the people all the words of G-d and all the mishpatim, the social ordinances. And the entire people answered with one voice and said: All the words that G-d has spoken we will do (na'ase'). With this phrase the people have ratified their acceptance of the Covenant.

There is a final acceptance of the entire document, as it were, at the ritual ceremony enacted by Moses, where the people signify their agreement to the whole, at the end of the section Mishpatim, Ex.24,7: 'And he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. And they said: All that G-d has spoken we will do and hear, (na'ase ve nishma)'.

The na'ase to part one, one can say, accompanies the Ten Commandments and the reward is the immortality of the nation, the 'goy kadosh'. The acceptance of part two is set with the social ordinances , with the system of social justice. If this is fulfilled, the reward is to become 'anshei kodesh', people of a holy calling, not, according to Malbim, subject to the laws of nature. Justice and righteousness in the world is the service that the Almighty demands here of a people that is to serve Him.