Parashat Mishpatim: A Perfectly Balanced Torah
The closing section of Parashat Mishpatim completes the story of Ma’amad Har Sinai – the Revelation of Hashem at Mount Sinai, when we received the Torah and formally entered into an eternal covenant with G-d.
The Torah relates that at this time, special sacrifices were offered, and Moshe took the sacrificial blood and divided it. Half the blood was placed in basins, and the other half was sprinkled on the altar. Moshe then sprinkled the blood on Beneh Yisrael, symbolizing their entering into a covenant with their Creator (24:5-8).
Rashi (24:6) comments that in truth, it was not Moshe who divided the sacrificial blood into two portions. This was done by an angel, who came especially for this purpose. Moshe would not have been able on his own to precisely divide the blood, and so G-d sent an angel to do it for him.
We must ask, why was it necessary to send an angel to complete this task? Why was it so vitally important for the division to be exactly precise, such that it required the assistance of an angel?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explained that the division of the blood into two equal portions symbolized the two portions of the Torah – our obligations to G-d, and our obligations to our fellowmen. These two collections of sacrificial blood paralleled the two tablets which Moshe brought from Mount Sinai, one upon which were engraved our basic obligations to Hashem, and another upon which were engraved our basic interpersonal obligations. And this is why the two portions needed to be precisely equal. It was imperative to convey the message at this moment, when Beneh Yisrael received the Torah, that these two realms of Misvot are precisely equal, and neither is even slightly more important than the other. The Torah is perfectly balanced, demanding that we fulfill our obligations to G-d as well as our obligations to other people. Both sets of responsibilities are equally crucial for Torah life.
This concept is alluded to several verses later (24:12), where were read that Hashem summoned Moshe to the top of the mountain and informed him that he would be receiving "Luhot Ha’eben" – "stone tablets." The word "Luhot" is written without the letter "Vav," such that it could be read in the singular form ("Luhat"). The message we are taught is that although the laws were written on two tablets, the two tablets are, essentially, one and the same. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot fulfill only our ritual obligations to Hashem while ignoring our obligations to other people, and we cannot fulfill only our obligations to other people while ignoring our obligations to Hashem. Both are equally integral parts of Torah.
The Midrash relates that at the time of the sin of the golden calf, when Moshe saw what the people were doing and decided to throw down the tablets, the nation’s elders tried to stop him. Moshe, however, prevailed, and shattered the tablets on the ground, whereupon he was congratulated by Hashem for this response. It has been suggested that what the elders were protesting was Moshe’s decision to break both tablets. After all, they argued, Beneh Yisrael betrayed G-d by worshipping a foreign deity, but they did not violate the laws on the left tablet – the laws dealing with interpersonal conduct. Therefore, even if they deserved to forfeit the right tablet, they were still worthy of receiving the left tablet.
Moshe, however, insisted that both tablets be shattered. Torah is a "package deal." We cannot follow one half of the Torah without the other. If Beneh Yisrael were unworthy of the right tablet, then they were unworthy of the left tablet, too.
It is told that a group of students once approached a certain Rosh Yeshiva to ask what he thought of religious Jews who cheat in their business dealings. He said, "They are like religious Jews who eat on Yom Kippur."
The students were confused. They said, "If a Jew eats on Yom Kippur, then he isn’t religious!"
"Exactly," the Rosh Yeshiva replied. "And if a Jew cheats in his business dealings, then he isn’t religious!"
Accepting the Torah means accepting the Torah in its entirety, without any exceptions. An honest, ethical, generous person who ignores the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut cannot be described as a religious Jew, and a Jew who strictly follows ritual Halacha but is dishonest, impatient, mean-spirited or stingy also cannot be described as religious. We received the Torah as a "package deal," and this is how we must observe it.