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God Is In The Details

On the opening phrase of Parshat Mishpatim, “And these are the laws that you shall set before them,” Rashi comments:

Wherever the term “and these” is used, it signals continuity. Just as the commands in Parshat Yitro were given at Sinai, so too were the commands in Parshat Mishpatim. Why are the civil laws in the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim placed in juxtaposition to the laws concerning the altar at the end of Parshat Yitro? To tell you to place the Sanhedrin near to the Temple.

Rashi continues by commenting on the words “that you shall set before them”: G-d said to Moses, “You should not think that I will teach them a section or law two or three times until they know the words verbatim but not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and significance.” The Torah states, “that you shall set before them” – like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating.

Three remarkable propositions are being set out here, which have shaped the contours of Judaism ever since.

The first is that just as the general principles of Judaism (aseret hadibrot means not “ten commandments” but “ten utterances” or overarching principles) are divine, so are the details. In the 1960s the Danish architect Arne Jacobson designed a new college campus in Oxford. Not content with designing the building, he went on to design the cutlery and crockery to be used in the dining hall and supervised the planting of every shrub in the college garden. When asked why, he replied in the words of another architect, Mies van der Rohe: “G-d is in the details.”

That is a Jewish sentiment. There are those who believe that what is holy in Judaism is its broad vision, never so compellingly expressed as in the Decalogue at Sinai. The truth however is that G-d is in the details. The greatness of Judaism is not simply in its noble vision of a free, just, and compassionate society, but in the way it brings this vision down to earth in detailed legislation.

Freedom is more than an abstract idea. It means (in an age in which slavery was taken for granted – it was not abolished in Britain or the United States until the nineteenth century) letting a slave go free after seven years, or immediately if his master has injured him. It means granting slaves complete rest and freedom one day in seven. These laws do not abolish slavery, but they do create the conditions under which people will eventually learn to abolish it. Not less importantly, they turn slavery from an existential fate to a temporary condition. Slavery is not what you are or how you were born, but some thing that has happened to you for a while and from which you will one day be liberated. That is what these laws – especially the law of Shabbat – achieve, not in theory only, but in living practice. In this, as in virtually every other aspect of Judaism, G-d is in the details.

The second principle, no less fundamental, is that civil law is not secular law. We do not believe in the idea “render to Caesar what is Caeser’s and to G-d what belongs to G-d.” We believe in the separation of powers but not in the secularization of law or the spiritualization of faith. The Sanhedrin or Supreme Court must be placed near the Temple to teach that law itself must be driven by a religious vision.

The greatest of these visions, stated in this week’s sedra, is: “Do not oppress a stranger, because you yourself know how it feels like to be a stranger: you were strangers in Egypt” (Shemot 23:9). The Jewish vision of justice, given its detailed articulation here for the first time, is based not on expediency or pragmatism, nor even on abstract philosophical principles, but on the concrete historical memories of the Jewish people as “one nation under G-d.” Justice in Judaism flows from the experience of injustice at the hands of the Egyptians, and the G-d-given challenge to create a radically different form of society in Israel. This is already foreshadowed in the first chapter of the Torah with its statement of the equal and absolute dignity of the human person as the image of G-d.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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