Parashat Mishpatim: Finding Peace in the Courtroom
The Torah in Parashat Mishpatim presents a wide array of civil laws, covering subjects such as theft, damages, loans, and the like. The Parasha begins with the words, "Ve’eleh Ha’mishpatim" – "And these are the laws" – and the commentators note the significance of the letter "Ve" – "and" – at the beginning of this phrase. This word appears to connect our Parasha with the final section of the last Parasha, Parashat Yitro, which discusses various laws concerning the altar. Apparently, some connection exists between the altar, upon which sacrifices are offered, and the civil laws in Parashat Mishpatim. Hazal inferred a Halachic requirement from this connection, namely, that the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court – should be stationed near the altar, on the Temple Mount. Our civil laws, as opposed to those of American society, for example, are not separate from religion, but to the contrary, are an integral part of religion. This concept is expressed by having the highest legal body of the nation convene in the area of holiest site, the Bet Ha’mikdash.
Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Israel, 1873-1960) noted an additional connection between the altar and the Torah’s civil laws, explaining that both serve to bring peace. When a person commits a sin, this creates a strain on his relationship with G-d. The altar provides a means of atonement, thereby repairing this strained relationship between the sinner and the Almighty. Similarly, the system of civil laws enables people to repair their strained relationships with each other by peacefully resolving their conflicts. When a Bet Din issues a ruling in accordance with the eternal laws of the Torah, the parties know that they have received a Torah answer to their problem, and they can live in peace.
It must be emphasized, however, that this works only if the two parties are seeking peace. Sometimes a party takes the other to court purely for revenge, and not in the interest of restoring peaceful relations. And there are also occasions when after the Bet Din issues its ruling, the losing party is bitter and resentful. We must heed the Mishna’s famous exhortation in Abot, "The world stands on three things – judgment, truth and peace." The Mishna lists "peace" last because the other two – judgment and truth – must be done for the sake of peace. Judgment – the court system – is important, but only insofar as it leads us to the goal of peace among people. The Jewish courts are a vital part of our quest for peace, but they can serve this purpose only if we are genuinely interested in peace and having our conflicts resolved.
And since peace is our ultimate goal, we must always consider the possibility of compromise. Too often, cases linger and are drawn out due to the parties’ refusal to compromise, or to recognize that persisting is not in their best interest. Many times it is far better to settle or to just let go than to resort to legal battles. Tradition teaches that "Mahaloket Ahat Doha Me’a Parnasot" – "One fight can stop one hundred sources of livelihood." This means that if G-d has assigned one hundred pipelines from the heavens through which to bring a person material blessing, a single unresolved conflict can block them all. Proof can be drawn from the fact that when Beneh Yisrael worshipped the golden calf, the manna still fell from the heavens, but when Korah led a revolt against Moshe, the manna stopped. Fighting disrupts the channels of material blessing, and makes it very difficult for a person to earn a proper living. And thus peace is always the best policy. We are always better off compromising for the sake of maintaining peaceful relations.
The Torah’s system of "Mishpatim," like the Mizbe’ah (altar), can bring peace, but only if we allow it to, realizing that peace must always be the ultimate goal.