February 2021 – Parshat Mishpatim

I am a big fan of legal shows like Law and Order. Aside from the opportunity to tap into my inner Jewish couch-lawyer, the show provides rich drama around the law which helps to distil complicated principles in a way that is palatable and easy to understand for a mass audience. While people like to make fun of lawyers or discuss new laws, the rule of law is critically important to maintaining a safe and just society.

This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim discusses the importance of a society in which there is law and order. One of the commandments that is delivered to the Jewish people includes the prohibition on taking bribes and lying. While these seem like obvious prohibitions, the fact that the Torah specifically outlines them and mentions them is no coincidence.

While in Australia we have relatively low levels of corruption, places around the world where judges and decision makers are susceptible to bribes, demonstrate the difficulties that such a reality creates for people living there.

In extreme examples this means that people who commit serious offences can pay to be set free or be found ‘not guilty.’ Bribery and lying can undermine peaceful societies by creating a system in which people do not have faith in the rule of law, and life therefore becomes cheapened.

If one can pay to be let off a crime and wealth provides the ability to circumnavigate the usual punishments meted out to those in society that misbehave, the system really fails. It means that poor people will always be disadvantaged if they do not have the money to bribe, but it also means that the inequalities of the society will be exaggerated by the corruptness of those in power who are happy to lie and cheat.

Interestingly, this week’s Parsha also discusses the importance of adhering the laws of Shmittah. Every seventh year the land is required to have a sabbatical in which the land is not ploughed, tilled or planted.

This Divine-ordered rest serves two purposes: on one hand it is an active demonstration of the trust that the Jewish people have in G-d that their needs will be provided for during a year in which the land is fallow. But on a broader note, the year of rest symbolizes that G-d is in charge and that while we have to make ourselves a vessel in order to receive blessings from G-d, overall G-d runs the world and the commandment to leave the land to rest represents that.

While judges and the rule of law is important to institute, ultimately, on this earth, where good and bad are so enmeshed and interwoven, humans often struggle to determine what is the correct and righteous decision to make. By outlawing bribery and lying in the Torah, the people of Israel are guided in the right direction to making sound decisions. By requiring the land be left fallow for a year, the Jewish people are reminded that no matter their profits and desires to focus on making money from their fields, all these things are predetermined by G-d.

When reading this week’s Parsha I cannot help but be struck at how eternal these messages are for all time. We are here on earth for, but a fleeting moment and life goes quickly. We must choose to focus on being just and adhering to the blueprint for our lives as set out by G-d. This week’s Parsha reminds us the importance of not losing focus on the things that are important: maintaining societies that adhere to the rule of law but also recognizing that G-d ultimately runs the world.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Gabi