Parashat Mishpatim: The Altar and the Courts
The bulk of Parashat Mishpatim deals with civil law, the guidelines for settling monetary disputes and for addressing situations such as theft, property damage, negligence, and the like.
The Rabbis raised the question as to the connection between Parashat Mishpatim and the final verses of the previous Parasha, Parashat Yitro. Parashat Yitro concluded with laws relating to the altar in the Bet Ha’mikdash, such as the requirement to have a ramp, as opposed to stairs, leading to the altar. Parashat Mishpatim then begins, "Ve’eleh Ha’mishpatim" – "AND these are the laws." The letter "Vav" ("And") at the beginning of a sentence indicates that the sentence bears a close connection to what was stated previously. It thus appears that the code of civil laws presented here in Parashat Mishpatim is closely associated with the closing section of Parashat Yitro, which deals with the Mizbe’ah, the altar in the Temple.
The Rabbis inferred from this connection that the Sanhedrin – the highest Rabbinic court – should convene on the Temple Mount, near the Bet Hamikdash. Just as the Torah juxtaposed the laws of the altar and the civil laws, similarly, the chief authoritative court must be situated near the altar.
The location of the Sanhedrin conveys the powerful lesson that legal jurisprudence is an integral part of religion. The United States follows a system of complete separation between religion and state, whereby legal matters may not be determined and laws may not be legislated on the basis of religious belief. From the Torah’s perspective, the precise opposite is true. Civil laws are an inseparable part of religion. The Sanhedrin sits alongside the Bet Hamikdash to show that the legal proceedings in the Rabbinic courts is no less "religious" than the sacrifices offered in the Temple. It is all part of the same system.
As such, there is no such thing as religious commitment without adherence to the Torah’s code of civil law. If a person prays, observes Shabbat, keeps Kosher, studies for several hours a day and recites Tehillim, but he is dishonest in business, then he is not religious. The laws of Parashat Mishpatim are as much a part of Judaism as the rituals we read about at the end of Parashat Yitro. The laws of ethics and civic responsibility represented by the Sanhedrin are as integral to Torah observance as the sacrifices offered nearby on the altar.
There is also another lesson to be learned from the location of the Sanhedrin. The Mizbe’ah serves to bring peace between God and the Jewish people. Sin interferes with our relationship with the Almighty, and the atonement achieved through sacrifices restores the strained relationship. The Torah’s civil laws similarly serve to bring peace between parties in conflict. Just as the altar brings peace between people and God, the laws, as determined and applied by the Sanhedrin, serve to bring peace among people.
This is an especially relevant message to a community such as ours, which consists of many businesspeople. It is the nature of business to lead to disputes; legal battles are almost endemic to commerce. The solution is turn to the Torah, to consult competent Bateh Din who resolve disputes in accordance with God’s laws. When disputing parties bring their case to a Bet Din, they both win, because they are guided according to Torah. In this sense, the Bet Din acts like the altar, restoring peace among the litigants who know that they have acted properly. Complex and unpleasant situations are bound to arise in the context of business, but there is a sound solution – the Torah’s laws, and this is the solution that we should all utilize in resolving disputes.