In Part II we return to the "Ko Tomar" unit (as defined in Part I, i.e. 20:18-23:33) and attempt to understand its internal structure and purpose. Considering that this unit is the first complete set of mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael receive after the Ten Commandments, we should expect to find particular significance latent therein.
Let us first [as usual] analyze its internal structure and then address its content.
The 'Key' Word
Although this unit begins with three mitzvot (see 20:18-22) that fall under the category of "bein adam la'Makom" (between man and God), the focus shifts immediately thereafter (at the beginning of Parshat Mishpatim - 21:1) onto the category of "bein adam l'chaveiro" (between man and his fellow man, i.e. civil law).
These mishpatim begin with the laws of a Hebrew slave (21:2-11) and are followed by numerous examples of 'case-type' civil laws dealing primarily with 'nzikin' (damages - 21:12-22:16). The presentation develops in an organized, structured manner, progressing from cases of capital offense to issues concerning accidental property damage.
As I'm sure you noticed, the 'key word' in this section is "ki" [pun intended], which implies if or when. Note how most of the parshiot from 21:1-22:18 begin with the word "ki," and even when it is not written, it is implicit. In other words, each of these "mishpatim" begins with a certain case [if...] and is followed by the ruling [then...]. For example:
If a man hits his servant then... (21:20);Basically, this section contains numerous examples of 'case-law,' upon which the Jewish court (Bet-Din) arrives at its rulings. In fact, this is the basic meaning of a "mishpat" - a case where one person claims damages from another, and the shofet (judge) must render a decision.
If an ox gores a man ... then the ox must be stoned. (21:28)
At the very end of this list we find three laws written in a more imperative form that do not discuss damages:
"A sorceress shall not be left alive. Anyone lying with an animal shall be killed, and one who sacrifices to [other] gods shall be excommunicated..." (22:17-19)Even though these can be understood as case-type laws that Bet-Din is responsible to enforce, they clearly mark a transition, as indicated by the imperative form.
An abrupt change takes place from 22:20 onward. As opposed to the 'case-type' laws found up until this point, we now find a collection of imperative-type laws, i.e. do... or do not..., which are beyond the realm of civil enforcement by Bet-Din. These mitzvot focus on the nature of the society that God hopes to create within Am Yisrael, as they govern the conduct of every individual in his daily life. (See Board #9.)
Note how the Torah uses two almost identical phrases to 'enclose' this special sub-section (22:20-23:9), which focuses on God's expectations for the moral fabric of our society.
The opening sentence:
"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt." (22:20)And the closing statement:
"You shall not oppress a stranger, whereas you know the feelings of a stranger, for you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt." (23:9)(See Board #10.) In between these two psukim, we find many other mitzvot that reflect this same high ethical standard:
"You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry..."In contrast to the previous section, whose laws are enforced by Bet-Din, in this section God Himself enacts punishment. Each member of society is expected to treat the poor and needy with kindness. If one does not, God may 'intervene' and turn his children into orphans.
"When you lend money ... if you take his garment as a pledge, you must return it by sunset ... for if you don't, when he calls out to me, surely, I will hear his cry..." (22:20-26)
This section includes several additional mitzvot (also in the imperative form) governing individual behavior (see 22:27-30) - cursing a judge or a political leader, giving tithes at the proper time [paying taxes], and a basic dietary law. These laws affect the individual's daily lifestyle and include an important general commandment reflective of the entire section:
"You shall be a holy people for Me..." (22:30).This section concludes with several mitzvot that emphasize an even higher level of moral and ethical behavior. (See Board #11.) For example:
This 'ethical' section is followed by yet an additional set of mitzvot (see 23:10-19), which now focuses once again on "mitzvot bein adam la'Makom." (See Board #12.) It includes the following mitzvot:
An Educational Progression
Let's stop for a minute and take note the progression of the various subsections discussed thus far. Note how they follow a meaningful, educational progression:
I. The Fear of Man
The first section (21:1-22:19) contains civil laws regarding compensatory obligations, common to any civilized society (not unique to Am Yisrael). These case-type laws are enforced by Bet-Din. The fear of punishment by the courts ensures the compliance of the citizenry. (See Board #13.)
II. The Fear of God
The next section (22:20-26) contains imperatives related to ethical behavior, emphasizing specifically consideration for the less fortunate members of society. Given the difficulty of enforcing this standard by the Bet-Din, God Himself assumes the responsibility of punishing violators in this regard. (See Board #14.)
III. Love for One's Fellow Man
The final section of imperative civil laws (23:1-9) contains mitzvot relating to an even higher moral and ethical standard. In this section, the Torah does not mention any punishment. These mitzvot are preceded by the pasuk "v'anshei kodesh ti'hiyun li" (22:30) and reflect the behavior of a "mamlechet kohanim v'goy kadosh" (see 19:5-6). When the civil behavior of God's special nation is motivated not only by the fear of punishment, but also by a high ethical standard and a sense of subservience to God, the nation truly becomes a "goy kadosh" - the purpose of Matan Torah. (See Board #15.)
IV. The Love of God
After creating an ethical society, the nation is worthy of a special relationship with God, as reflected in the laws of shabbat, shmitah, and "aliyah l'regel" - 'being seen by God' on the three pilgrimage holidays (see 23:10-17). (See Board #16.)
This progression highlights the fact that a high standard of ethical behavior (II and III) alone does not suffice. A society must first root itself in the most basic civil laws and the establishment of a court system (I). Once this basis has been established, society can then strive to achieve a higher ethical standard. Then, man is worthy to encounter and 'visit' God (IV).
One Last Promise
Even though the mishpatim and mitzvot end in 23:19, this lengthy section (that began back with "ko tomar..." in 20:18) contains one last section - 23:20-33 - which appears as more of a promise than a set of laws. God tells Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael that:
"Behold, I am sending a mal'ach before you, to guide you and bring you to ... (the Promised Land) ... for if you obey him [God's "mal'ach"] and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. For My mal'ach will lead you and bring you to [the land of] the Amorites, Hittites, etc." (23:20-23) [See also 23:27-31!]This conclusion points to the purpose of the entire unit. Bnei Yisrael must accept these laws that will shape their character as God's special nation. If they obey these rules, then God will assist them in the conquest of the Land. (See Board #17.)
Considering that Bnei Yisrael are on their way to conquer and inherit the Land, this section (23:20-33) forms an appropriate conclusion for this entire unit. Should they follow these laws, He will help them conquer that land.
Based on this interpretation, we can suggest a very simple explanation for why Bnei Yisrael declare "Na'aseh V'nishma" at the ceremony at Har Sinai (see 24:7).
If indeed Sefer Ha'Brit includes the unit from 20:18-23:33, then God's promise to help Bnei Yisrael conquer the land should they listen to Him (23:20-23:23) forms the most basic statement of this covenant:
"Ki im shamoa tishm'u b'kolo, v'a'sita kol asher a'daber - For if you listen to what He [the mal'ach] says, and do whatever I will speak ... then I will help you defeat your enemies..." (see 23:21-22)One could suggest that it is in response to this phrase that Bnei Yisrael declare:
"v'nishma" - in response to: "im shmoa tishm'u b'kolo."