After discussing the laws of the temple and altar in the previous Sidra, our weekly portion of ' Mishpatim ' begins by announcing the laws – judgments=' mishpatim' that Moses would teach the people. The high court had its seat within the temple, to indicate that these laws had the same religious significance as temple worship and prayer. The person acting as a defendant, claimant or a ' shomer' = watching over some object for pay or for free is actually doing a mitzvah , one of God's commandments as if he was eating the Korban Pesach = the Pesach sacrifice . The she'chinah- השכינה = God's divine spirit is present in the court room. When a person approached the judges, it was in fact him approaching God, because the word for God – אלוקים is used here for the judges as well. The oath of God shall be between the parties. Moses explained to Yitro, his father-in-law that people would come to him for judgment in order to seek God, to understand how God wants them to act in this particular situation.
This explains why it is forbidden to go to a secular court even if they use the Torah law. Going to a religious court is not only a religious experience, but to ask God, what is his wish and how should we act in the matter between us. The purpose was not to protect ones interest and win the case. The Talmud Sanhedrin says even if a judgment went against a person and the court has taken his cloak from him, he should sing his song and go on his way happy that he has done God's will. R' Isaac Sher explains that if a person goes to a religious court of law in the hope to defend his rights , protect his property and win the case , he has defiled the court and turned it into a secular court , and the judges into secular judges , even if the court uses religious law. He should be approaching the judges as representatives of God, who will clarify God's will in this situation.
And if one goes to court not to win, but to find out how one should act according to God's will, what is the underlying principle guiding the religious court. The prophet Zechariah 8:16 says 'you shall judge at your gates a verdict-judgment of truth and peace' – אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם. The outcome should reflect the truth and yet at the same time bring peace between the parties. The Talmud learns from this, that unlike secular courts (which are based on the adversarial legal system), the religious court has at the outset to recommend helping the parties come to a compromise or a settlement which addresses the concerns of both parties. Secular courts at the end of the process, will recommend people to settle ' out of court. In the religious court, even if the court proceedings are fairly advanced and one of the parties is sure to win, the religious court will try to again recommend the parties accept the help of the court and go for a compromise or a win-win settlement. The S'mah asks why a person would accept compromise when he has an excellent chance of winning the court case. He answers that the benefits of a peaceful relationship with other person far exceeds his financial loss. It means that they can sit together at the same table at a wedding and he does not have to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid him.
As parents and teachers we can teach children the values of peace and relationship underlying solving problems in a collaborative way. When it comes to conflicts and disputes, there are no winners and losers. There are only losers. We need to reframe conflicts and disputes as challenges or problems to be solved. When the needs and concerns of all are met and solutions are mutually satisfactory we can help kids think about the higher goals of peace, cooperation, relationship and a unity We have to get away from focusing on personalities, being judgmental and trying to see who is 'right ' – זכאי or who is wrong- חיב .
When kids don't act according to our expectations we don't need any criticism or blaming. All we need to ask is what is getting in their way and try to help. We need information from them. We need to help them articulate their perspectives and their concerns and give them an appreciation of our concerns. Being pro-social is addressing your own concerns and the same time taking into account the needs of other people. As Hillel said –אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני If I do not care about my own concerns, who will do it for me and if I am only for myself – who am I. Instead of asking how I can protect my interests and defend myself, a child should be reflecting and asking what does God expect me to do in this situation. What are the values that should guide my behavior? In this way a child will address his own concerns, take into account the concerns and perspectives of others and in an autonomous way engage in the moral act of restitution to try and fix things and mend relationships. This is how we teach kids to serve God.