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Even From the Altar

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

In the chapters that immediately precede this week's Torah portion, the Ten Commandments rang out from Mount Sinai in a symphony of sound and vision, thunder and lighting - and the world was forever changed. Although the Parashah we read this week lacks the pyrotechnic accompaniment, its message is a clear continuation of those ten teachings.

The topics covered in Parashat Mishpatim seem familiar: Slavery, parents, murder, Shabbat observance, and more, giving us the sense that this is not a new communication, as much as a qualification and extension, or even a clarification of the consequences of violating the commandments taught at Sinai. While the Ten Commandments created value judgments, in Parashat Mishpatim these same principles are viewed through a judicial lens: Legal implications are clarified, sanctions and punishments are set out, and the "price" of sin is established.

There is, however, another common strand between Yitro and Mishpatim; it is a subtle point expressed in a Talmudic perspective of the Revelation at Sinai (Kiddushin 31a): The first four commandments may be seen as a cluster of laws that establish fidelity to God and prohibit the worship of any other deity. In and of themselves, these laws would not have seemed strange to any of the societies or religions of the ancient world. Ancient cultures were well acquainted with jealous gods, and the turf wars and struggles for supremacy among them. The commandments calling for exclusivity may have seemed nothing more than self-serving legislation, and thus unexceptional.

And then, something extraordinary happened: The Fifth Commandment upended all prior concepts of religion. In what seems to be an abrupt change of focus, our mysterious, incorporeal God commanded us to honor our parents. With this statement, the nations of the world realized that this religion differed from anything they had previously encountered. This was something new and different. This commandment was revolutionary, not only because it mandated a certain degree of power-sharing, but because it introduced an entirely new concept into the religious framework: Filial respect is the point of origin for all interpersonal relationships. By including this among the commandments, God brings human society, and the relationships that constitute society, into the religious sphere - in a radical departure from all other belief systems.

The Ten Commandments subtly and uniquely fuse laws regarding our relationship with God together with laws that deal with social justice, thereby creating an entirely new world view. The religious experience and the decency upon which we are commanded to build our interpersonal relationships are no longer to be seen as two diverse realms; rather, they are two aspects of one whole. The Fifth Commandment indicates that these two spheres are intertwined, inseparable. This is the radical, revolutionary message of the Revelation at Sinai.

Reading the verses of Parashat Mishpatim with this new understanding of the Ten Commandments reveals new and important insights. For example, the treatment of murder at the outset of the parashah: The Sixth Commandment proscribes murder; this is a value statement transmitted at Mount Sinai. In Parashat Mishpatim, the specific contours of what constitutes murder are addressed. Categories are created - manslaughter, premeditated murder, criminal negligence, crimes of passion and more; various cases and scenarios are clarified, and punishments are established. In a very clear and unequivocal manner, murder is distinguished from manslaughter, and the punishments for each are set: A person who unintentionally causes the death of his fellow man is removed from society, and sent to a place of refuge. On the other hand, a person guilty of premeditated murder must pay with his or her own life; there is no refuge for a murderer. "If a person plots against his neighbor to kill him intentionally, then you must even take him from My altar to put him to death." (Ex. 21:13-14).

The reference to the Sanctuary, the holiest place on earth, the epicenter of religious practice, in a verse discussing the basest human behavior, speaks precisely to our newfound insight: A person cannot hide behind their religious appearance or displays of piety if they have committed a crime. Ritual does not eclipse morality; these are two sides of the same proverbial coin, and they cannot exist independently.

This same idea was hinted at in the verses following the Ten Commandments: "When you eventually build a stone altar for Me, do not build it out of cut stone. Your sword will have been lifted against it, you will have profaned it." (Ex. 20:22) Metal is a symbol of war and mayhem, therefore it cannot be used to prepare an altar for the service of God. The Sanctuary must be a place not only of worship, not only of ritual purity, but also of peace and social justice. Murderers will find no sanctuary or protection there, nor will it be built with the use of the sword. Similarly, the Ten Commandments do more than address social justice alongside cultic ritual. They meld these two heretofore unrelated aspects of the human experience, teaching us that it is the combination of the two that creates a holy society.

With this understanding of the Revelation, the verses in Parashat Mishpatim take on a deeper meaning: The taking of a life is not merely an offense against an individual or even against society as a whole. It is also an offense against God Himself. Man is created in the image of God, formed by God out of the earth He collected from the very spot upon which the Altar would stand. (Rashi, Bereishit 2:7) In other words, we are not "stardust"; we are the Altar and Holy Temple. The sanctity of human life and the sanctity of the Altar are one and the same. The ritual and the social aspects of holiness spring from the very same source; they are inseparable. Therefore, a person who takes a life will not find refuge in the Sanctuary.

Judaism's revolutionary vision of holiness, then, is that ritual and social holiness are two sides of one coin, two parts of the same Tablets. The Ten Commandments were the first harbingers of this vision, and the verses of Parashat Mishpatim translate that vision into law.

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