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16
Feb

Mishpatim

Written by Rimona Frank. Posted in 2011-2012.

Sh’mot (Exodus): 21-24

This Parasha is extraordinarily rich in variety of themes, and multiplicity of laws, judgments and statutes governing every facet of human existence. This comprehensive legislation covers relations of man to their society, between members of the same community, between peoples, between man and man, man and his enemy, and even between man and the flora and fauna of his environment, not to mention the relationship with man to his Creator. The Torah therein regulates the life of the Hebrew person at work and at leisure, on Shabbat and festivals."[1] We will examine some of Parashat Mishpatim’s terms against the backdrop of this summary. Last week we noted that, the Ten Words were presented in a progression of the general gradually breaking down into particulars. This week the trend seems to go the other way. Thus, before the ‘national’ commandments regarding the times and seasons (in the land) – 23:10-19 - and the ‘big picture’ as described in 23:20-33, the people of Yisrael are presented with very detailed and specific instructions as to what is expected of a ‘set apart’ nation.

And these are the judgments which you shall put before them…" are the opening words of our Parasha. The singular form of “mishpatim” (“judgments”) is “mishpat,” the root letters being sh.p/f.t (shin, pey, tet). Last week we saw that YHVH's instructions to His People are not to be defined simplistically as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts.' “Mishpat” may be compared to last week's “chock” - "law," which is also to “engrave," and to “pikudim” - "precepts" (a glimpse of which we had in Parashat Shmot 3:16, where it appeared as the verb to “visit"). Likewise, “mishpat” also has a variety of meanings, such as "just" (Deut. 32:4) and "justice" (Is. 16:5). In this Parasha “mishpat” is used several times as "arbitration" and "decision making" (21:31), as well as "legal right" (23:6) and "custom" (21:9). According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, this “word [which is] of broad meaning, is also to be understood as to “govern or rule." [2] Thus, although some of the “mishpatim” could be termed as "judgments" or “ordinances” in the stricter sense of the word, this judicial term is couched in a much larger social and spiritual framework, a framework that is rooted in YHVH's Torah, which is anything but a strictly official and legal codex.

Let us go back to our opening verse: "And these are the judgments which you shall put before them." Notice that Moshe is told to “put" or "place" the judgments before the Israelites. "Put," as used here, appears to be almost out of place, unless it is tied to some image, such as we encounter in Ya’acov (James) 1:22-25: “…Become doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the Word, and not a doer, this one is like a man studying his natural face in a mirror; for he studied himself, and has gone away, and immediately he forgot of what kind he was. But the one looking into the perfect Torah of liberty, and continuing in it, this one not having become a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in his doing (underline added).

The Torah, which is to reflect the new nature of “am s'gula” (“a treasured People” as mentioned in last week’s Parashat Yitro), is likened to a mirror. "Placing the mishpatim before the people" becomes clear, therefore, especially when considering the Israelites' response last week: "All which YHVH has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8) and this week too (ref. 24:3). Thus these “mishpatim” constitute one of the aspects reflecting and revealing the ‘new nature’ (and indirectly also ‘flesh’ and sin) of YHVH's special and holy people (ref. 22:31), which they see each time they look "into the prefect Torah of liberty." And what is it that they first see there? "When you buy a Hebrew slave (“eved” – “one who works”), he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing" (21:2). What could be more appropriate for the newly released slaves than to act with consideration and kindness toward their own brethren who have met with this predicament? Is it any wonder then, that this is the first ruling that they encounter as they look into the “mirror” which has been “placed before” them? Various dimensions of this topic are dealt with all the way through to verse 11 (of chapter 21). A variety of regulations ensue, mostly dealing with acts of violence, followed next by rules regarding damages caused specifically by one's livestock (chiefly oxen) to others.

Reparations for these damages proceed (chapter 22:1-15), leading to various moral and ethical issues, as well as to the treatment of the defenseless. In 22:21 we read: "You shall not torment an alien. You shall not oppress him, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." The word here for "alien" is “ger,” from the root “gur” (g.u.r, gimmel, vav, resh), to “live somewhere, dwell, or sojourn.” According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, "this root means to live among people who are not blood relatives… thus, the ‘ger’ was dependent on the hospitality that played an important role in the ancient Near East.” [2] Some examples of the way this word is used are as follows:

  • Avraham sojourned in Egypt during the famine in the Land of Yisrael (Gen. 12:10).
  • Lot was scornfully called a sojourner by the people of Sodom (ref. Gen. 19:9).
  • Hebrews 11:9,13 characterizes the Patriarchs as those who considered themselves pilgrims and aliens (not regarding themselves as members of this sin-ridden world).
  • Ya'acov described his stay with Lavan as that of a sojourn (ref. Gen. 32:4).
  • Ya’acov’s sons defined their status in Egypt as that of sojourners (ref. Gen. 47:4).
  • The Elohim of Yisrael is termed this way, when not welcome among His people (ref. Jer. 14:8).
  • Finally, in the age to come the wolf will be the "protected citizen" of the lamb (Is. 11:6). [3]

The Torah’s cautions regarding all behavior towards the ‘stranger’ number no less than 36; more times than it deals with any other command![4] This fact powerfully speaks for itself. In 22:21 Yisrael is told to not “wrong or oppress“ him, with the latter verb being “lo’chetz"(l.ch.tz. lamed, chet tzadi) - literally “to restrict, squeeze.” YHVH used this very term when He was responding to Yisrael’s cry in Egypt: “I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them” (Ex. 3:9 italics added). This kind of repetition puts Yisrael ‘on the spot’ as to their treatment of the alien/stranger. A similar theme is reiterated in 23:9, with the addition…"you know [understand] the soul of an alien, since you were aliens in the land of Egypt." The Israelites are most emphatically expected to empathize with the alien, having once been in that humbling station themselves. Remembering at all times having “come out of Egypt” leaves no excuse for forgetting the conditions of the less fortunate and for lording it over them! Interestingly, “gur” is also “dread, fear.” Thus, being a stranger placed one in a vulnerable position, requiring protection by the local inhabitants. Moreover, if the many repeated lessons of sojourning will not have been sufficiently learned, the Israelites may find themselves aliens all over again (e.g. Deut. 28: 63ff.) as YHVH would judge them for unrighteousness as He did the Egyptians, and beyond, because of the higher standards expected from them.

Our text continues in verses 22:22-24 as follows: "You shall not afflict an orphan or a widow. If you afflict him, if he at all cries to Me, I will surely hear his cry, and My anger shall glow, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall become widows, and your sons orphans." Once again we turn in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) to the Epistle of Ya'acov (James), where we read…"Pure and undefiled religion before Elohim and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions" (1:27). In the same vein, Sh’mot 23:3 and 6 read, respectively, "And you shall not favor the lowlydah’l - in his lawsuit," and "You shall not pervert the judgment of your needy one – “evyon” in his lawsuit." And although “favor” and “pervert” are certainly not synonymous, according to the commentator Cassuto, the way these two verbs are presented here makes for similarity between the two (ideas). He therefore tried to reconcile these two passages, which he deemed to be redundant if not explained in some other way. Cassuto therefore attaches to “ev'yon” (here) a meaning other than "needy," and connects it to the word “oyev” - “enemy” - thus making this a prohibition corresponding to the two preceding admonitions (23:4-5), that is, to meting out justice to the enemy. [5] YHVH’s ultimate expectation as to the redeemed community’s attitudes is illustrated in another fashion in 22:25, where we read: "If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest.” The preposition “if,” (that the Torah presents here, rather than “when”), intrigued the Jewish commentators, since in their opinion there was no question that lending to the needy was a definite directive. They resolved this by stating that if one does something compulsorily it is not necessarily done as graciously as when doing it out of one’s own free. Thus, YHVH expects His people to act as if given an option; that is from a heart that is generous and has elected to act, even if in reality there is no choice in the matter. We may conclude, therefore, that we are to delight in obedience.

Let us now return to 22:26-27 briefly, there to find included in the ordinance a reasoned appeal: "If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious.” This “neighbor” is described as someone who is possibly so poor that this cloak serves him as “his covering” – a sheet – “cloak for his body” – sleeping garment, and “for sleeping in” – his very mattress. YHVH is concerned with every detail, “for I am gracious,” and expects as much from his own.

"And you shall sow your land six years, and you shall gather its produce. And the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow" (23:10). After the seventh year release of the slaves, we encounter again a ‘seventh year’ principle, this time regarding the land. "Let it rest and lie fallow" is designated by two verbs, “shamot” (sh.m.t. shin, mem, tet), and “natosh” (n.t.sh. noon, tet, shin); the first meaning to “let go," and the other to “forsake." This "letting go" and "forsaking" of the land and of its husbandry, is designed so that "the needy of your people shall eat. [Whatever] they leave behind, the animals of the field shall eat. So you shall do to your vineyard, and to your olive grove" (v. 11). A similar theme is seen in the following verse, which speaks of seven days of labor, and of a seventh day in which "you shall rest, so that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your slave-girl and your alien may be refreshed." It is significant that the care of the poor, slaves and livestock is related to "resting" and "letting go," all of which point to trust, faith and reliance on YHVH, and similarly in T’hilim (Psalms) 46:10 (literal translation): “Let go and know that I am Elohim.”

In 23:19 we encounter 10 words (5 in Hebrew) upon which rest most of the elaborate Jewish dietary laws: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." It follows, "You shall bring the first of the fruit of your soil to the house of YHVH your Elohim." The word used for "boil" (“bashel” - b.sh.l, bet.shin.lamed) or "cook" also means "ripe" (e.g. Joel 3:13). Could this be a reminder, therefore, not to let the kid become too mature before offering it up to YHVH, especially if the context of the entire verse is taken into consideration, along with 22:30 (where mention is made of bringing to YHVH the firstlings of the sheep on the eighth day)?

According to the above-examination of the term “mishpatim,” translated “judgments,” it is not to be defined strictly by the letter of the law, but more broadly as YHVH’s just arbitrations, which are to become standard and customary within the redeemed community of Yisrael (the italicized terms are all rendered “mishpat” or “mishpatim” in Hebrew). As a provision for making this lifestyle feasible, we read: “Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you on the way and to bring you to a place which I have prepared” (Ex. 23:20 ff). Thus protection is already provided, and the destination has also been prepared. “If you obey his voice and do as I say…” tells us that the Angel’s voice and YHVH’s are synonymous. “And I will be an enemy to your enemies and I will be an adversary to your adversaries.” In the Hebrew “I will be an enemy”- “ve’a’ya’vti (le’oy’vecha”- “to your enemies”) appears here in verb form (to be found nowhere else in the Hebrew bible), as it does too with “I will be an adversary” - “ve’tza’rarti (le’tza’re’cha” – “to your adversaries”). The usage of the verb form (and especially in the case where a verb is literally made up for the purpose of conveying this idea) underscores YHVH’s total identity with His People. It illustrates more vividly His participation in their experiences. The presence of the Angel/messenger, in whom abides YHVH’s name in their midst adds to the closeness that YHVH is establishing with His people.

Leaving YHVH’s messenger, we continue on and climb to new heights, but not before the sprinkling of the atonement blood (24:6); an act in the course of which the “young men of Israel” offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings (v. 5), while the seventy elders, “went up… and saw the Elohim of Israel… and did eat and drink” (24:9,10,11). In this way the covenant is seen to encompass the people as a whole; from the young men at the foot of the mountain (the foundations), to the elders at the top and in close proximity to YHVH, with the sprinkling of the atonement blood being at the heart of the event and literally over the ‘body’ of the nation. The twelve pillars and the altar, in 24:4, provide a graphic and physical illustration, again, of the total inclusion of every member of the household of Yisrael. In addition, in Hebrew the word for “pillars” is actually conveyed here in singular form, thus adding a unifying factor to the all-inclusive nature of the covenant and oneness of the people. The scene climaxes with Moshe being called up to YHVH on the seventh day of the glory resting on the Mountain: “And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of YHVH was like a consuming fire on the mountain top” (24:17). Moshe was to abide there for forty days.

YHVH summoned Moshe to come up to the Mountain, as he was about to give “the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandment which [YHVH] has written to teach them" (v. 12). The word for "teach them" is “(le)horotam,” of the root y.r.h.- meaning to “shoot" or to “fling" and by implication to “teach," and forms the root of “Torah” (as mentioned last week). This one verse makes quite clear the connection of Torah to "teaching." Here we see again, as we observed in the beginning that, "the Torah is anything but a strictly official and legal codex.”

  1. New Studies in Shmot Part 2, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
  2. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980.
  3. Ibid.
  4. New Studies
  5. Ibid.

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