The word Mishpatim is translated in English by the term “ordinances.” Our sedra focuses on 53 mitzvos, many of which are in the category of Mishpatim – rational, logical laws taught to the people.
The opening sentence of our sedra states: “And these are the mishpatim, which you shall set before them”. The Almighty is directing Moshe to set the laws of Judaism before the people in a simple, easy, and understandable fashion. Rashi asks why our sedra begins with the word “And”. “And these are the ordinances ….” Rashi has two comments. First, just as the previously mentioned laws (in last week’s sedra of Yisro) mentioned the Ten Commandments that were presented by G-d at Sinai, so too were these mishpatim – logical, rational laws, given by Divine command at Mount Sinai. The first Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter (who lived in Poland 1789-1856) commented on Rashi’s statement and said we should not keep the mishpatim, the rational laws of Judaism, the so-called social laws only because they make sense to us, or because they are logical. We should observe these laws because they were also given at Sinai, along with the Ten Commandments. We keep these ordinances because they were given by G-d.
The second comment of Rashi on the first word of our sedra is: “And these are the ordinances – “And” indicates a correlation between the discussion here (Chapter 21 of Exodus) of the judicial system, and the previous discussion of the construction of the altar (Chapter 20). We learn that Sais Din Hagadol, the Jewish High Court, which was part of the judicial system, met near the mizbeach (altar) in the holy temple. This was not a coincidence. Rather it was of Divine design.
The Torah is comprised of commandments regulating man’s relationship to G-d as well as those mitzvos regulating man’s attitudes towards his fellow man. The altar in the holy temple was symbolic of the potential for peace, which existed between the human being and his/her Creator. The courts, on the other hand, were symbolic of the potential working harmony between all Jews. Thus, it was appropriate for the great Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, to convene near the altar. The word “And” bridges the discussion of the altar in last week’s sedra with the laws of the Sais Din in this week’s sedra.
In Shemos 22:24 we read about charity. “If you lend money to my people, to the poor that be with you.” Rashi asks, what is the necessity of the phrase “that be with you?”. The verse reads well without this phrase. “If you lend money to my people, to the poor.” Why the extra words ‘that be with you”? Rashi comments – imagine yourself to be poor. Our great commentator teaches us a lesson regarding the proper frame of mind in giving charity. If a person does not portray to himself realistically the plight of the poor person and family, the act of charity becomes abstract and dehumanized. However, to one who puts himself in the place of the poor man who lost his income, and actually feels his pain, the act of charity is enhanced, and the amount given is increased.
This is what our sages meant when they stated in the Talmud (Serochos 6 S) – “the merit for fasting is in the charity”. In other words, on the fast day when the person of wealth also realizes what it meant to be hungry, he just becomes awakened to the importance and necessity for generosity and charity.