This week’s parshah is parshat Mishpatim – the parsha of “laws.” The parshah contains 53 mitzvot including civil laws concerning damages and loans, and how courts of law are conducted. Also included are laws against mistreatment of foreigners, observance of festivals, the prohibition against cooking meat with milk, and the mitzvah of prayer. Though we sometimes think of mitzvot as good and kind deeds, the real definition of a mitzvah is a “law,” something we are obligated to do. Judaism is a way of life shaped by the centrality of law. Good laws reflect good values, but are more than just values. Values are what we hold to be most important. Laws are there to ensure that our values are actually acted upon, preserved and maintained. For instance, the value of human dignity may be very important to us. But unless we have laws to protect human dignity, our values have little power. We can see how a law like avoiding mistreatment of foreigners protects human dignity. But what about ritual laws? According to the great Jewish legalist and philosopher Maimonides (Rambam), even these laws protect core values. The purpose of festivals, says Rambam, is ultimately for offering tzedakah and creating a sense of social equity. We can see how a prohibition of cooking a calf in its mother’s milk awakens in us a sense of respect for all living beings. Rabbi A.J. Heschel writes that prayers “are commitments” to our deepest values. Laws are practices that protect, strengthen, and enact our values. Implied in the teachings of Torah is that people have great potential for good. The emphasis, therefore, is on having laws that ensure that our good values result in good practices.
This Shabbat may we all have an opportunity to find guidance from the laws of Torah, and so bring our values into reality in the world.