Parashat Mishpatim is the eighteenth weekly portion in the Torah and the sixth in the Book of Exodus (21:1-24:18). It is the second half of the Revelation at Sinai; after the experience of hearing what we call the Ten Commandments, the people now receive many more mitzvot. In fact, the mitzva count for this portion is fifty-three — more than all of the seventeen preceding portions combined!
In the first section (21:1-11), God tells Moses the laws of servitude. A Hebrew may become a manservant or maidservant, but only as per a limited contract; it must be the choice of the individual to remain with the master once the term is up. (Note the use of the term “Hebrew” here, hearkening back to their own days in Egypt and even to the story of Joseph.) The seventh year is the year of emancipation.
In the next section (21:12-22:16), the Torah sets out the rules of damages: from murder to manslaughter to molestation to miscarriage; injuries done to body and to property; liability for theft, negligence and breach of contract; et cetera. For God to make a covenant with the Nation of Israel, they must have the framework of civilization.
The Torah goes on to discuss the basics of many ritual laws (22:17-23:19), from the banning of pagan practices to the rules of keeping kosher, from letting the people rest every seventh day to letting the land rest every seventh year, from the spring festival of Passover to the reaping festival (Shavuot) and the ingathering festival (Sukkot). However, even amidst these mitzvot between people and God, the Torah discusses many mitzvot between people and people: the need to aid the widows, orphans and paupers; the unjustly persecuted; and even those fellow citizens with whom we vehemently disagree!
In the final section, (23:20-24:18), the mechanics of the covenant between God and Israel are laid out. God will protect the nation which follows His laws faithfully. Moses builds an altar to solemnify the covenant, along with twelve pillars representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The people affirm their commitment by declaring, “All the things which the Lord has said, we will do and we will listen to.” Moses and Aaron, along with the latter’s two older sons, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders, climb the mountain; but Moses must proceed alone into the cloud, to commune with God for forty days and forty nights and to receive the Two Tablets. There are many more mitzvot for him to receive.
The portion from the Prophets is the thirty-fourth chapter of the Book of Jeremiah. It tells a fascinating story from the reign of the last Davidic King of Judea, Zedekiah. God orders the people to free their Hebrew manservants and maidservants, as required by the Torah; the wealthy citizens forge a covenant to do exactly this, but then go back on their word and seize the emancipated slaves, angering God. This demonstrates how challenging even the most basic mitzva can be.