Why the Torah is in the details


This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18.

It’s quite common today to hear people extol the simplicity of the Ten Commandments. This desire is actually reflected in the Torah. In last week’s portion, the events at Mount Sinai are described with great drama and pageantry. There’s no question that the event was historic and inspiring, not just for those who were there, but for all generations of the Jewish people. And the point is made abundantly clear: The Jewish people’s culture and heritage is founded on basic principles of law.

It’s interesting, therefore, that this week’s Torah portion leaves behind the simplicity and goes into the weeds. It lists dozens of laws that are sometimes mind-numbing in their complexity, often veering from civil law to criminal law, and then going into details of ritual observance.

Why doesn’t the Torah simply stick to the big principles? One reason is to demonstrate that the process of creating a living covenant requires an attention to details. And, the process doesn’t stop, but continually evolves as society itself undergoes perpetual change.


One example is Exodus 21:23-24, which states that if one person injures another, the penalty will be “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” This statement is often mistaken to justify direct revenge without regard for the circumstances of the injury or the feelings of the people involved in the legal dispute.

Jewish law, however, is much more rational than that in the application of “eye for an eye.” Every commentary on this verse explains that it actually means monetary compensation for bodily damage. It is the responsibility of judges to examine the circumstances of the injury and then award appropriate compensation to the victim. Moreover, their assessment is to include compensation for pain and suffering, and for how the injury will affect the victim in the future.

The application of “eye for an eye” establishes an important principle: One person’s eye (or tooth, or life) is no more valuable than another’s. Each person is to be treated equally. And when anyone is hurt, God weeps for that injury.
Let’s go back to the desire for the simplicity of the Ten Commandments. It has taken on political overtones as people often portray them as the answer to the complexity of modern life. It is often said that if the Ten Commandments were taught in public schools or displayed in court houses, everyone would be more moral and law-abiding.

The fallacy of this idea is demonstrated by the laws which are put forth in our Torah portion, as well as several other lists found in the Torah. Law is complex because life is complex. To live with others means we need to see them as whole people, with human needs, wants and failings. A legal system must be willing to go into the weeds to make sure that everyone receives a fair share of justice.

It’s often said that the devil is in the details. I prefer to say that by focusing on the details of the Torah, we will find God. That assurance will help us create a rational and just society.

Questions for discussion:

What is the difference between justice and revenge? How does the Torah’s law help us understand the distinction?
Is it appropriate for politicians to use the Torah to justify their views? n

Rabbi James R. Michaels is the director of pastoral care at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.

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