The Torah portion of Mishpatim represents a striking change from everything we have read in the Torah up until this point. With few exceptions, the Torah up until now has focused exclusively on telling a story. But beginning with Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah will begin to focus on law. In fact, there are no less than 55 different laws related in this Torah portion, with entire sections of the Talmud based on the verses we read this week.

This focus on law is one of the key distinguishing features of Judaism. (Parenthetically, it is one of the things that makes Judaism more akin to Islam than to Christianity, as both Judaism and Islam create widely-deployed legal systems–halakha and sharia, respectively–through textual exegesis.) Even among those movements within Judaism that reject a strict approach to halakha, the emphasis on legal thinking remains important.

Why law?

The short answer is that Judaism holds that details matter. It’s not enough to have good intentions. Rather, according to the Torah, our actions are ultimately more important. While good intentions can help to mitigate the severity of bad actions, in the end it’s the deed, and not the thought, that counts.

But more than this, law is the mechanism by which we make our beliefs real. Just last week we read about the Revelation at Sinai. The encounter with God is perhaps the show-stopping scene in the entire Torah. And yet we don’t stop the show there. We keep reading, because it’s not enough for us simply to have had an experience of the divine. The Torah mandates that we take the energy and power of that moment and repair and redeem the world. That’s work. It means being meticulous and thorough in all aspects of our lives, something brought about through a legal system.

We don’t always measure up, of course. For me this week, like any week, has involved apologies for ways in which I failed to perfect the details. Yet the Torah’s point in this effusion of law just after the theophany at Sinai is to inspire us to keep going, to always seek improvement in the minutia of our daily actions. Through that thoroughness we can bring about a repaired and redeemed world.

Shabbat shalom.

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