What an amazing Parshah!
Besides the fact that it has so many laws, many of the vast number of them are so real world-oriented that if you had to give an example of what Torah really has to say about life, everything in Mishpatim would jump off the page at you.
Dealing with people who have no power, victims, slaves, the destitute, are there together with the laws that involve paying damages without flinching. One of the more unique cases requires providing a place for a person who has committed a murder by negligence. The gravity of the death of an innocent person isn’t negated, while at the same time the complexity of the internal reality of the perpetrator isn’t ignored. His negligence demonstrates, at least on some level, lack of genuine recognition of the value of human life. It doesn’t mean that he is a murderer in the simple sense of the word; he doesn’t hate anyone to the extent of making a conscious effort to eliminate his presence from the world. So, he is sent to one of the Levite cities, where he finds himself in an entirely different environment. This can be the key to his coming to an entirely new and better way of seeing himself, and from there, seeing other people. The Levites were dedicated to Torah. Being with them could potentially change him, and in another sense also change them, by making them aware of the fact that there are people whose lives have taken them to where they didn’t necessarily didn’t expect to be.
Case after case in the Parshah take you to the theme of “deal with it”! You harmed someone materially or physically, it’s up to you to not let the story end. You have to pay, ask for forgiveness and get on with your life. You can’t act as though nothing happened, nor can you act as though making a mistake, even if it is a terrible one, ends your life.
Your life is important, and your primary responsibility is to yourself. The famous dictum of the Mishneh, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” doesn’t mean what some people take it to mean. It doesn’t mean developing a “me first” attitude towards life, the kind of attitude that would necessarily mean that when the bus comes, you are going to be the first one on regardless of how many people were there before you. It means that you must recognise that no one else can fulfil your potential, do your mission, or earn your portion in the Future World for you.
One of the more famous cases involves a man who heard a prowler in his basement. When he went down to investigate, he found himself facing a burglar. He is obligated, not just permitted to defend himself. If he is, for instance a sharp shooter he should neutralize the burglar, but if not, he is supposed to save his own life even at the expense of the life of the burglar.
You’re the only one that you have! You have a mission in life that no one else can perform. Your life is complex, just like the lives of the rest of us. You can deal with each aspect of your life in ways that only you can master.
The Parshah is replete with all three categories of mitzvoth. There are civil laws and laws involving damages, payments, criminal justice etc., these are the ones that, had the Torah not guided you, you would still have dealt with the issue at hand. You can think erroneously that they are different than the other kinds of laws that make an appearance in the Parshah; such as the holidays which have to do with commemorating and living with the realization that Hashem is involved with the world, and has chosen us as His people. Left to your own devices, your logic wouldn’t demand that you eat matzah on Pesach! The fact that they appear in the same Parshah tells you something about both kind of mitzvot.
The laws that you would do anyway, (or think that you would do anyway), have to be approached with the same level of religious faith as the ones that seem more ritualistic. The reason is that the Torah is not there to tell you how to worship yourself. It’s there to tell you, (to use the phrase of the Vilna Gaon) how to rectify yourself and rectify the world.
You can only fix something if you know what its there for, how it works, and what it’s made of. Otherwise you can end up with tragic results emerging from the best intentions. The best example of this in relatively modern times, is communism. Many of the early communists were idealistic young Jews. To them, logic demanded social justice, and the Marxist version seemed to be on target. They were sure enough in their logic that they murdered countless innocent people. Along the same lines I just heard that the possibility of allowing abortion at any stage of pregnancy including the ninth month is on the agenda of New York’s legislature. It feels logical to people who have a subjective view of life, one in which the only act in the play is the mother, and the (viable) unborn child somehow doesn’t make it to center stage. Only Hashem can see reality objectively, without an agenda that is altered by personal frailty or past history.
Every time you do a mitzvah, you are making yourself and the world more perfect; more real. If you knew how much you are achieving by any mitzvah you do, you would as Rebbe Nachman would say, sing and dance through the whole seventy years…
Enjoy being part of a people who don’t shy away from the real world, from real people, and real situations.