“And these are the laws which you shall put before them…”
There are no less than 53 laws given in the Torah portion this week, establishing a civil code within the Torah. These detailed laws include how to: a) be responsible for someone else’s property, b) pay workers on time, c) lend and borrow money, and d) establish a justice system which is free from bribery and corruption. When you read the parsha, however, you wonder about the timing of God’s plan. Why were the Jews presented with a long and detailed list of civil laws following the spectacular events at Sinai?
The Rabbis look at the words of the first line of the parsha, and comment that the verse begins with the word “and”. This is not a mistake. The Ten Commandments were indeed meant to be a highlight of the basic tenets of Judaism, but they needed to be followed by the specific civil code. The purpose of this was to send the message to his people. You should not think that your job is done as a Jew if you just live according to the Ten Commandments. God has a much bigger plan.
“The nature of this world is such that even when operating at the highest level, the nation needs its civil code… For Judaism, both are equally as holy. The world is not separated into the religious and the profane: a person is as profoundly spiritual when he observes the laws of damages as he is when he keeps the Shabbos. A person who violates the laws of lending is committing an act as contrary to the substance and spirit of Judaism as if he would eat non-kosher food. G-d mandated the one just as He mandated the other.”(morashasyllabus.com).
Very often we tend to think that the “big laws” somehow outweigh the little ones. But in Jewish law, all laws are created equal. When we refuse to uphold civil laws, we are also hurting the relationships between man and his fellow man, which can only in turn lead to a weak connection between ourselves and God. When we take advantage of those less fortunate, less intelligent, less blessed with fortune, we are actually forgetting the idea that each and every creation of God has a “spark of Godliness”. Breaking laws does not only have monetary consequences. In essence, when we cheat the rules, we also cheat our relationship with God. This fact cannot be said enough. No matter how religious or irreligious we “look” on the outside, it is our behavior and observance of each and every “big” and “little” law that makes us truly observant Jews. And the Torah gives these laws to us, as a guide, so that we don’t just leave it up to society and its whims, to dictate what is moral and ethical, and what ultimately builds a holy and just nation. The Torah intends for us to become a “light unto other nations” by taking exceptional care of our fellow-man’s possessions, of his body, his feelings and his reputation.
The civil code is purposely given immediately after the great revelation at Sinai. It reminds us that we are to live ethically on a day to day basis and not just live based on “big” ideas and principles. The way we treat our help at home, our workers, our friends, and our families, are also a part of our path to grow closer to God. And when we do make mistakes because we are human, we can look to the Torah to see the ways in which to guide ourselves in a proper direction.