Upon studying Perashat Mishpatim the reader must understand that the human race was not operating at the level of sophistication that, we imagine, exists in the civilized world today. In many ancient Near Eastern cultures, human life and property held the same low value. Slavery was common place, and more specifically Bene Yisrael themselves had just spent several hundred years under the yoke of the taskmaster.
As we witnessed in last week’s Perasha, Moshe was already involved in civil judgments, and upon his father-in-law’s advice established a system for administration of justice. Having inherited the traits of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it is apparent that the ethical standard of justice for Bene Yisrael was sublime despite their years of slavery. This quality has always been the proud trait of the Jewish people. Whether enslaved in Egypt or in a desert wilderness we have maintained a standard of ethical behavior like no other nation or civilization.
It is shameful to see that, even in our times, there are still countries and regions in the world that respect for human life and property is systematically violated. The value of human life in those regions remains dismal; political despots and religious leaders dispose of their followers and enemies alike with the most denigrating manner. There is not one day that passes that we don’t read in the newspaper about a gross human right violation in many parts of the world. Many of those violations are done officially under governmental sanction. Respect for human life and human dignity is completely absent. Women and children are still being sold into slavery and abuse. 3400 years ago the Torah was given with its teaching of sanctity of life and respect to the dignity of a human being, especially women, widows, children and the orphans. And yet in our own days, we see so much of these people being abused, sold and massacred.
We are different! As we celebrated this past week the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I remembered the movie Defiance. This movie details the brave group of Jews under the leadership of three brothers who hide in the forest from the Nazis during the Holocaust. I walked away from that movie realizing the amazing quality of the Jewish people. During the most adverse situation this group of Jewish partisans struggled and managed to maintain a community and a set of laws to live by. With little food, harsh conditions, and the constant threat of the Nazis this group of Jews formed “mishpatim”, laws to govern themselves and to remain true to their Jewish values. It is for that’d many other reasons that we recite every morning when we wake up “Blessed be G-d who chose us from all the nations of the world to give us the Torah….and let us say Amen!