The third principle and the most remarkable of all is the idea that law does not belong to lawyers. It is the heritage of every Jew. “Do not think, 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 of the law. The Torah states, “that you shall set before them” – like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating. This is the origin of the name of the most famous of all Jewish codes of law, R. Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch.
From earliest times, Judaism expected everyone to know and understand the law. Legal knowledge is not the closely guarded property of an elite. It is – in the famous phrase – “the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4). Already in the first century CE Josephus could write that “should any one of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls. Hence to break them is rare, and no one can evade punishment by the excuse of ignorance” (Contra Apionem, ii, 177-8).
That is why there are so many Jewish lawyers. Judaism is a religion of law – not because it does not believe in love (“You shall love the Lord your G-d”, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) but because, without justice, neither love nor liberty nor human life itself can flourish. Love alone does not free a slave from his or her chains.
The sedra of Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. Parshat Yitro contains the vision, but G-d is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.