Torah Portion Mishpatim Lesson 18
1. We now move in Torah from narrative to God's instruction on how we are to live. Mishpatim, thus, is a key hinge in the Torah. These first chapters are known as the The Book of the Covenant.
2. We'll see a lot of words about these instructions. Today we encounter the word, mishpatim. Are these judicial rulings? Or rules? Laws? Cultural mores? Ethical demands? Wisdom requirements? We do our best when we understand it's an amalgam of those ideas. This breadth of understanding is both true and necessary to our proper learning about it and our carrying away lessons learned from it.
3. This portion is a continuation from Yitro. It's as if we move from the betrothal with God to marriage. Concept of covenant to details. An extension of (commentary on?) "the 10."
4. A theme right from the start in these instructions is God's desire that we limit the use of our personal and group power - with discipline, constraints, restraint. We should not cross certain boundaries, either in excess as to our treatment of others or defiance of God.
5. A feature that I always like to look for in this study and would recommend to you is the presence of both parallels and certain differences in the development of law and ethics from then to now. You'll certainly see extremely important early principles that reflect bedrock principles in our own jurisprudence and morality.
6. One other important word of introduction. This will not be easy. These are not epigrams or proverbs. God's word comes within layers of meaning, and in time. These instructions obviously had meaning to ancient ears who heard them in times when laws, mores, and ways were very different than ours. Please always keep in mind these are ancient words recorded by people who lived in ancient times that were very different in many ways than ours.
These words have indeed been heard, read, and studied by people in all the time from then to now, and now by us. And, to our great benefit, great minds have thought and taught about them, and we are the beneficiaries of all that. Now we look for meaning in our own lives in our own time, and, as believers in God, we believe the word is there for us. And, as people of faith, we believe these words have an eternal and forever layer to them as well.
So, sometimes the instructions will be relatively simple and easy to understand. But, way more often than not, we must be prepared to open our minds to the complexity of what was intended and be prepared to explore deeply to get to truths that are rich indeed but, like much of real value, require our best, hard effort.
There are many, many layers beneath these words, and that in each of them is truth God intended for us to find. We should search the words with an open, inquiring mind, modesty, and hard work and effort. Surely, if we indeed believe these words are the word of God, can we approach them with anything less?
7. Finally, let me say that there was, is, and likely always will be a rigorous debate among Jews about whether these rules are to be followed, indeed which ones, and how. Our study of them in this class is not, obviously, part of that debate. Rather I see this study, as with all study of God's word, as instructive, as informative of the Divine will. More narrowly, I think there are messages from God in these mitzvot that are helpful, perhaps for all people, for living life as God expects, however literally or rigorously one chooses, or does not choose, to follow these words.
So, stay with me. Let's see where this takes us together. The ideas come fast and furious, and are really difficult right at the start. Ready? Let's go!
I. Read 21:2-3.
After all we've read, why do you think God did not prohibit all forms of slavery outright at the beginning? Why just place limitations on it.
(Slavery of differing sorts was a widespread practice in ancient society, and these most ancient sacred words sought to ameliorate it rather than to abolish it. In essence, they imposed limits, restricting the conditions in which slaves could be held - the term, the treatment, etc. These initial limits had the goal essentially of humane treatment, while so many more limitations were yet to come, in Deuteronomy and, of course, in later thought, prescriptions, and action
This first limit, which is a limit on the term, indicates that the practice permitted is principally about indentured servitude to pay off debt, rather than chattel slavery, as we saw it in Egypt, in ancient as well as more recent times.
As Ramban wrote, the freedom in the seventh year was an extremely important advance.
As sacred text is deepened in the Prophets, we see a trajectory of further concern and additional limitation. Though we may wish there were an outright abolition at the outset, the seeds for the abolition of slavery are planted earliest here.)
II. A. Next we have limits on killing, with differentiation of consequences, depending on the sort of killing; as well as constraints and severe penalties for kidnapping, striking parents, and reckless harm of others.
We won't today get into text on the death penalty itself. It's very complex. It's been variously understood by sages and judges over the centuries. And its application has been so constricted by further rulings and policies, it's become almost unused, making this text hard to place in context and understand. So, with that understanding, we'll put it to the side for now.
B. Then we get to the famous verses, 21:23-25.
Well - I said it would get difficult. It's as if the Lord wanted us to experience difficulty early on!
1. What do we make of God's word here? We know it's not an easy task right off the bat. We have reactions to these words both from Jesus and the rabbis that, in effect, agree to the difficulty. I don't want to spend time today (though we should another day!) on the places they both go in detail. But there is a similarity I want to point out, and then ask a question.
a) As you know, Jesus alluded to this text and what must have been its literal reading by some when he said in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Matthew 5:38
b) Now, here's where it gets interesting, if you did not know this already: the rabbis from the beginning refused as well to read these verses literally. They, too, had another interpretation on the way it should go. As Maimonides said, "There never was any Rabbi, from the time of Moses...who ruled, based on 'an eye for an eye,' that he who blinds another should himself be blinded."
Instead the verses were read by the rabbis to announce a principle of justice that punishment should not be too lenient (such as a scolding for an eye) or too harsh (a life for an eye). And, this principle was manifested in a system of monetary compensation that has evolved in many ways into programs in our own time of victims' compensation funds in which the victim is restored in some way the value of what was lost by the one who caused the loss.
2. Question: Now, here's the question to you, as students of the Bible as God's word, we just read the words from the Bible, and we discussed both Jesus' reaction and the rabbis' reaction to a literal reading of them. What do we make out of these words? How do we find meaning in them? Are we to take them literally? Do we ignore them? Or is there some truth in them that we are to interpret to deeper truths?
( a) For Jews, and in our own modern jurisprudence, it's a gauge for measuring the value of damage done to use to assess the monetary compensation owed the victim. This is close to the principle that we treat the victim fairly by providing relief in the nature of the injury and that the person who caused the injury take responsibility for that restoration. Thus, these principles form the basis for some of our best thinking in our current law and policy with respect to compensation of victims. It's a way of expressing a fundamental principle of justice, far better than leaving the resolution truly to vengeance where the meaner, the nastier, or the more powerful gets his way with whatever response he likes. Or that the victim goes without justice, or with inapt remedies.
b) As to Jesus' wisdom, there's so much there. Not to put Jesus into any sort of comparison, but it at least reminds me of the wisdom in the Talmud that we must find ways to go beyond the law in getting to shared solutions and then to peace, basically in how we treat each other. This is not to say we shouldn't have justice. There's that layer, but, not in opposition, and rather along with it, is a hope of peace and reconciliation that comes in certain ways from finding a way to sap the hostility that causes the injustice.
One pearl of which this resonates in the Talmud: if your neighbor treats you like an ass, put a saddle on your back. A wonderful discussion for another day - that there is another layer of truth beneath that of justice, where like for like has also to do with getting to love, mercy, and peace.)
III. We now arrive at stuff that may seem a bit more mundane, but I want to make the case that the mundane is important! For in the mundane is how we live with each other a lot in the day-to-day, how fair we are to each other, how we care for each other. All of this is very much God's concern, I want to suggest.
Let me read several of these mitzvot to you and ask a few questions:
1. If a man steals an ox, he must pay back five oxen. If a man steals a sheep, he must pay back four sheep. 21:37. If you want to get into why 4 or 5, do so, but why the multiplied penalty?
(a penalty, to reimburse the victim for pain, loss, and trouble, to be a disincentive to theft, etc.)
2. If one lets one's livestock on to another's property and it does damage, one is liable for the choicest crops. But if a fire spreads from one's property to thorns and then to destroy grain of a variety of sorts, plain restitution is required. 22:4-5. How would you explain the difference in the penalty?
(There is greater culpability when the damage is more likely to be foreseeable and less likely accidental.)
3. A person who is paid to take care of another's property has a higher duty to re-pay than one who is holding it without being paid, if the property is stolen. 22:6-7. Fair or not?
(I think fair because presumably part of the fee is to pay for the cost of keeping it protected from theft, among other things.)
IV. Ok, now I'm going to read you a quick stream of commandments that come next. Listen to them carefully. Listen not so much to each rule on its own. But rather listen for messages they send, individually or together. What are they basically saying? What big lessons or meaning do we take away from them, however much we may follow them exactly or not?
No sorcery (17)
No sacrifices to another god (19)
No wronging a stranger (20)
No ill-treatment of widows and orphans (21-23)
No taking interest on a personal loan (which, according to midrash, may mean more generally not to be a crushing creditor, which leads further to how we use our resources well in the world, which leads even further to thinking and working out the application of these words in new settings) (24)
No keeping a neighbor's garment as a pledge during the night when he needs it (25-26)
No skimming off part of offerings due God (28-29)
No false rumors and no false witness and no following the many for evil (23:1-3)
No ignoring the wandering of an ox or ass, even of an enemy; it must be returned (4-5)
No subverting the needy. (Do you think this is just materially needy?) No false charges. No bribes (6-8)
Give your land rest in the seventh year. Give yourselves, your workers, and your animals rest on the seventh day (10-12)
Hold festivals for God, especially at those 3 feast times of change and production from the earth. (14-17)
Do not boil a kid in its mother's milk (19)
(Loyalty to God. Duty to God in the way of support of God's ways. Appreciation of blessings from God, and showing the gratitude. Duty to others in recognition of God's deliverance of us. Fairness to others. Limits on taking advantage of others. Curbing our appetites. Taking time from the mundane for the spiritual. Protection of the weak and indeed foregoing taking benefit of those in a weak position. Duties extend all the way out from oneself to one's kin to one's community to others, even to enemies - all as a result of our duties to God.
These ordinances, so to speak, go deeper and "cover more ground" than the basic principles of "the 10" and basic principles. Yet, they don't come near to covering the waterfront that, say, a full law code might. They seem to represent or symbolize what a just and orderly way of life would look like.
I would suggest that well beyond setting out laws they're designed to provoke us to look into our relationships with others and how we are to live and work with, and care for, them. Indeed by establishing so many possible conditions and situations, these words put us through all sorts of conceived ways of being and then actual exercises of being - both thinking and then acting - in the real world in ways that are in accord with our principles. So, in the living out all the many choices and challenges we face each day, God helps us know and have the will to make the right choices and make the right steps.)
V. Conclusion. Read 24:3-4. Moses repeats all the devarim and mishpatim (words or commands and judgments or rules), and the people commit to do and to obey. The text just below in verse 12 refers to God giving Moses ha torah and v'hamitzvah (teachings and commandments).
(Betrothal has become marriage! Marriage partners aren't perfect, and we are far from perfect in our lives with God and each other. But God has given the people a blueprint that He expects them to pattern their lives on, and they have committed to do their part, individually and together, to live by it.