As the Torah puts it, “AND these are the laws you shall place before them…” Parshat Mishpatim starts by going right into the social justice code of the Torah, directly following the giving of the Torah itself. In fact, Rashi explains that we start with the word “And” to tell us that just like the last one, this Parsha was given at Sinai as well. Rabbi Yochanan Zweig wonders why there’s a separation between the Ten Commandments and the social laws. Also, isn’t it obvious that all the rules were given at Sinai, since the whole Torah was given then? Furthermore, why would the first rule described be the one about Jewish slaves, when that wouldn’t even be possible for at least 14 years after the Jews settle into their land? Wouldn’t it make more sense to start with more relevant laws?
As Rabbi Zweig answers, there are two understandings of our relationship between man and G-d. We undertake to accept G-d’s Laws, but we also accept a responsibility for the welfare of our fellow Jew. This week’s Parsha is the focus on that second responsibility, that of caring for each other: We don’t steal because the rule in society is that we shouldn’t steal. What makes Jews unique is that we also don’t steal because we need to insure that our fellow Jew has/keeps what’s rightfully theirs. If we don’t care for the welfare of the other, then we’ve failed to maintain our own social justice. We see this difference in laws like our requirements to help another Jew load their animals, even if we happen to hate that person. We also see this difference in laws like our requirement to not ignore any lost objects we find.
With that understanding, if there’s one person who hasn’t realized their responsibility to their fellow Jew… it’s the slave, who stole from another Jew, and gave themselves up to slavery to repay their debt. Not only did they ignore their charge to be only G-d’s servant, but they also ignored the boundaries of their fellow Jew. The Torah is clearly telling us that we have a responsibility to include into society even a Jew that we’d have a reason to exclude, and that’s why it’s the first law described. Last Parsha contained the concept of being G-d’s people, and doing what G-d needs. This Parsha focuses on the concept of being one people, and bringing us all together. A team is greater than its parts, but only if we each do our part for the team.