Parshat Mishpatim stands out as the first parsha in the Torah to express itself through the language of law rather than narrative. Prior to our parsha, the Torah teaches us through stories – from the account of Creation, the Avot and the Imahot, to the Exodus. Yet in Parshat Mishpatim, we cannot help but sense a sudden change in the Torah's tone as it goes on to explore and explain the laws of Nezikei Adam, the laws of bodily damage, and Nezikei Mammon, the laws of property damage. Why this apparent change in tone? What can we learn from it?
To help answer this question, we should turn to the words of Rashi who quotes the Mechilta, saying, "And these are the Mishpatim, the Judgments: Wherever it says 'These' [in the Torah] it rejects that which has been stated previously. [Wherever it says] 'And these,' [as it does here], it adds on to that which has been stated previously. [Thus, 'And these' of this verse implies], 'Just as those which have been stated previously, [the Ten Commandments] are from Sinai, so too, these [commandments that the Torah is about to state] are [also] from Sinai."
Rashi is communicating something very significant about the relationship between narrative or agadah and law or halakha – Judaism must equally possess and simultaneously embrace both in order to realize the essence of Torah.
According to the Jewish theologian and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the relationship between agadah and halakha, and the necessity to concurrently hold onto both, can be summarized thusly: "Halakha represents the strength to shape one's life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Agadah is the expression of [the human's] ceaseless striving which often defies all limitations. Halakha is the rationalization and schematization of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system. Agadah deals with [humanity's] ineffable relations to God, to other [people], and to the world. Halakha deals with details, with each commandment separately; agadah with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halakha deals with the law; agadah with the meaning of the law...Halakha teaches us how to perform common acts; agadah tells us how to participate in the eternal drama...Halakha prescribes, agadah suggests; halakha decrees, agadah inspires;
halakha is definitive, agadah is allusive" (God in Search of Man, pp 336-7). Thus, we see that both narrative and law have an equal standing in Jewish tradition. Though each accomplishes a different objective, each finds its source at Sinai.
The reason why Rashi needed to emphasis that both the laws of Parshat Mishpatim and the previous narratives come from the same origin is because, as Heschel notes, "To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halakha is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of agadah. The interrelationship of halakha and agadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halakha without agadah is dead, agadah without halakha is wild" (ibid., 337).
Judaism, therefore, requires both the narrative and the law in order to be realized fully, and our parsha asks those who feel more compelled towards the narrative to embrace the legal aspects of Torah, and those who feel more comfortable with the language of law to embrace the spirit of story. Only when both aspects of our tradition are placed on equal terms can we, as a people, fulfill the potential and message of our tradition.
And so, this Shabbat, as we venture into the world of the language of law, let us remember that it is our stories, our emotions, our inner-lights which illuminate and create real and lasting meaning in the world of Torah – a world which boldly proclaims, "Shamor v'Zachor b'Dibur Achad," "Observe (halakha) and Remember (agadah) in one act of speech."