Parshat Mishpatim: The Temple of Justice

This parsha, directly after Am Yisrael received the Torah, deals mostly with commandments that are between man and his fellow man.

Torah scroll dedicated in name of fallen soldiers from Gaza conflict (photo credit: ALBERT GABBAI)
Torah scroll dedicated in name of fallen soldiers from Gaza conflict
(photo credit: ALBERT GABBAI)
Parshat Mishpatim, the Torah portion which we will read this Shabbat, deals primarily with the penal system. For example, it discusses relationships between employers and employees, punishments for a thief or someone who does damage, principles of debate in court, etc. In other words: it deals mostly with commandments that are ben adam lechavero, between man and his fellow man.
Note that this parsha is placed immediately following the description of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the event at which Am Yisrael received the Torah. Moreover, it concludes with a continuation of Ma’amad Har Sinai; meaning, the laws governing social relationships are an essential and inextricable part of receiving the Torah. Judaism does not recognize the possibility of a proper relationship between G-d and man without there being proper relationships between man and his fellow man, parents and wife.
An impressive expression of this important principle appears in our Torah portion in the following verse: “But if a man plots deliberately against his friend to slay him with cunning, [even] from My altar you shall take him to die.” (Exodus 21:14) As we know, according to the Torah, purposely killing a person is punishable by death. Halacha, Jewish law, requires that many conditions be met in order to carry out the death sentence, such as warning before the act, and more. Therefore, cases like this were few and far between in the history of the Jewish nation.
And yet, the Torah teaches us that a person who took the life of another should be punished by losing his own life. Murder is the worst moral injustice, and the punishment for it is commensurate with its severity.
This verse, however, teaches us something additional.
The greatest peak of worshiping G-d is the avodat kohanim, the priests’ work in the Temple. Despite this, if one of the kohanim were to murder another purposely, his work in the Temple would not protect him from the death penalty. Even if he would be standing at the altar, the court would take him from there and sentence him to death.
It is important to mention that this explicit directive is contrary to the traditions of other nations that viewed the idol temples as protective territory. According to those laws, a man who murdered and escaped to the temple complex was protected from punishment.
Indeed, in the Bible, we find two cases in which people tried to take advantage of this tradition and escaped to the complex of the Temple, but due to the explicit instruction written in the Torah, the Temple did not save them from their punishment.
Examination of this law brings us to a deeper understanding of Judaism and its values. If we would say that the Temple has the power to save a person who committed a crime from his punishment, we would be expressing an understanding that the realm of the Temple – the realm of worshiping G-d – stands above these values. If we follow this train of thought, we could not be surprised if one would say that if G-d were to commit a wrongdoing, He is above the values of morality and justice.
As opposed to this, the Torah presents a clear and unequivocal stand that says that G-d is not above values, and therefore it is impossible for Him to commit any wrongdoing. For this reason, escaping into the Temple complex cannot save a murderer from his punishment. Actually, when he is within the area of the Temple, near the altar, he is standing in the place that expresses more than any other the values that necessitate his punishment for the crime he committed.
This is a clear and explicit expression of the general fact that the laws that regulate social conduct are an inseparable part of Ma’amad Har Sinai when we received the Torah. All this comes to place moral values at the core of Judaism and teach the reader that a Judaism which is not humane or moral is not possible.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.