16.1. The Sinai Covenant: Yitro and Mishpatim

The central part of the book of Exodus, the next two weekly portions, Yitro and Mishpatim (portions 5 and 6, respectively), describe the Sinai Covenant.

The Ten Commandments – the most general principles of how humans are expected to relate to God – are presented in the Yitro portion, while the Mishpatim portion is a legal code of laws and regulations. The relationship of these two portions is therefore usually described as “the general outline followed by its detailed elaboration.”

We would certainly not deny the validity of that approach. But following the premise of “Moses’ Torah” and “Aaron’s Torah” for adjacent pairs of Torah portions, as we have previously explained, we would propose that the relationship of these two portions can be understood somewhat differently. I.e., each of these portions has its own unique outlook on the world in general, and humankind in particular.

Yitro, the “Moses” portion, puts the emphasis on ideals, chosenness, and achieving greatness. Moses believes that man is pure by nature, and always seeks a path to the Almighty. Man only needs help and to be shown the way, which is what the giving of the Torah is meant to accomplish.

But in Aaron’s portion, Mishpatim, the emphasis is instead on correcting human shortcomings and atoning for sins. Because man is inherently prone to sin, the main task of religious guidance, according to this view, is to help a person overcome his sinful temptations, and, if possible, when he does succumb, to cleanse him of the consequences. The Mishpatim portion therefore focuses on laws, and on the penalties that must be paid for committing crimes. It begins with the laws that punish murder, violence, and human trafficking.

These two approaches complement each other. Initially, in the Yitro and Mishpatim portions, as well as in the seventh and eighth portions, the Terumah and Tetzaveh pair, the two paths diverge. The gap between them keeps widening, leading to the crisis of the golden calf. But then, in the process of resolving that crisis, the two approaches become integrated. We will discuss all this in greater detail below.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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