Human Nature and Rewards – Mishpatim 5781

D'var Torah | Exodus

In Don Isaac Abarbanel’s categorization of the laws of the Torah, he provides a valuable insight into sociology. Abarbanel (d. 1508) understands that mishpatim (statutes) [Exodus 21:1] are only one type of law. Testimonials (edot) and laws (hukim) are the others. The distinction between them is as follows. Testimonials are reminders of God’s deeds and wonders. Hence, the rules regarding Shabbat and holidays are in this category since they focus on God creating the universe or redeeming Israel from slavery (Passover) or protecting them in the wilderness (Sukkot).


Statutes delineate interpersonal relationships in organized society. These rules that have to do with persons, property, and promises – to use Locke’s terminology – are common to every human society and are required to regulate good conduct. According to Abarbanel, statutes are the product of the agreement of all citizens or, what political philosophers call the “social contract.” These statutes are eminently rational. Hukkim, however, have no rational basis or if they once did, it is no longer known. Abarbanel compares this type of law to the king’s edicts that are always enforceable though not always reasonable.


Having proposed these three categories of rules, Abarbanel seeks to clarify what difference, if any, is discernable between the civil statutes enacted by human society and the divine statutes commanded by God. Abarbanel argues that there are indeed two differences. Some divine statutes do not appear in any human code of law, for example, how and when a Hebrew servant goes free. Second, God rewards those who uphold divine statutes. Human statutes are matters of what Abarbanel calls “the good order of the country” (tikkun ha-medinah) and no reward is promised or given for obedience. For instance, no reward is given to drivers for following the rules of the traffic code. The Torah, however, promises long life for upholding the laws of fair weights and measures.


It appears that Abarbanel might actually be indicting the scriptural view of statutes, claiming that a reward is necessary to induce fulfillment. And Antigonos of Soho teaches that Jews should behave as servants who serve the master without any expectation of reward (Avot 1:3). In reality, however, Abarbanel recognizes the limitations of human nature. Ideally, Jews should aim to conduct themselves altruistically towards others. But the sad truth is that humanity behaves in ways that are often less than ideal. Recognizing this truth is one of the pragmatic positions of the Torah.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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