Today I’d like to talk to you about this past weekend’s parshah: Mishpatim. To do so, though, I’ll go one week farther back to Yitro to set the stage. At the end of Yitro, the tribes were camped out at the base of Mount Sinai, G-d has just spoken the ten commandments, and Moses has come down from the mountain to address the people. As he did, they
So what do they say? They tell Moses that they hear and will obey, but ask that G-d not speak to them because they’re afraid hearing G-d will kill them. Moses gets them to chill out, and then tells them briefly how to build an altar the right way. He shows them that the intense display of power isn’t the way that future praying and religious experiences will necessarily be. Thus ends Yitro.וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק׃witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (Exodus 20:15)
Now, we get to Mishpatim, the reading from this past week. Immediately after this description of how to build a place to interact with G-d safely, we start with this sentence:
What would you expect to happen next? We’ve just heard about the altar. Would it follow up with a litany of rules about how to pray? Requirements of the priesthood, cleanliness, or a description of how to build the ark of the covenant? We know that’s coming, right? Maybe there’s rules pertaining to sacrifices and related rituals? It could even be a listing of holidays or festivals.וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃These are the rules that you shall set before them (Exodus 21:1)
But none of this happens.