Mishpatim (“rules”) is one of the longest Torah portions, containing 23 positive commandments and 30 negative precepts. This parasha is also known in Hebrew as sefer ha-brit – the “Book of the Covenant” – and it includes rules dealing with a wide variety of issues: how one should treat slaves, strangers, widows and orphans; punishments for killing or physically hurting other people; the responsibilities incurred by the owner of an animal that has injured or killed another person or animal; how to treat people fairly; as well as rules and penalties about theft and lending money. Although the Torah accepts the condition of slavery, it legislates humane guidelines for how slave owners must treat their slaves: The purposeful maltreatment of a slave leads to his or her immediate release, and all slaves must be released in the jubilee (50th) year. We are even directed to show consideration to enemies. Mishpatim also specifies how to perform certain rituals: Shabbat, the three pilgrimage festivals and kashrut. God tells the people that if they serve God, they will be blessed and they respond, “All that God has spoken we will do.” For six days the mountain is covered by a cloud, symbolizing the presence of God. On the seventh day, God summons Moses to ascend the mountain, and Moses climbs to the top of Mount Sinai and re- mains there for forty days and forty nights.
According to tradition, there are 613 commandments in the Torah: 248 “positive” ones (which tell us what we should do), and 365 “negative” ones (which tell us what not to do). It is said that the 248 positive ones correspond to the number of parts of the human body and the 365 negative ones correspond to the number of days in a year. In the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai said that this was to remind us that we should abide by God’s mitzvot every day of the year, with all of our physical powers (Makkot 23b).
Among the many laws in this parasha, several deal with the issue of theft (Exodus 22:1-2). If a thief is caught breaking into a place at night, the penalty is more severe than if the thief is caught during the day. There is a story about Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai in the Talmud that can help us understand why this is so. When Rabbi Yochanan was dying, his disciples came to him and asked him to give them a blessing. “May you fear God as much as you fear other people.” His disciples were baffled by this blessing. “Only that much?”, they asked. The Rabbi explained, “You fear the disapproval of other people so much that you refrain from doing in public that which you readily do in private. Yet God sees you in private as well as in public places.” (Adapted from Berakhot 28b.) What helps you make decisions about how to act? How do you define conscience? Is there a big difference between listening to your conscience and obeying God’s commandments?
In looking at the regulations in this parasha, Ibn Ezra notes that they focus upon just treatment for the most vulnerable members of society – slaves, borrowers, minors, resident aliens, widows, and orphans. For his part, the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) believed that the biblical commandments protecting the stranger represented the beginning of true religion: “The stranger was to be protected, although he was not a member of one’s family, clan, religion, community or people; simply because he was a human being. In the stranger, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.”
Mishpatim commands us not to exact interest on a loan made to a fellow Jew. From Sefer Hachinuch we learn that the giving of an interest-free loan is greater than the giving of charity outright. This commandment led to the development of community groups which would lend money without charging interest. Begun in Europe they were called “Gemach,” an acronym for “gemilut chasadim,” or acts of loving kindness. In America these societies became known as the “Hebrew Free Loan.” These societies gave Jews the means to provide for themselves by advancing capital to begin a business, to pay for necessities or to pay off high interest debts. Today Hebrew Free Loan Societies lend money not only for small businesses, but also to help during times of unemployment or illness, or to provide college or job training funds. In some communities, the Hebrew Free Loan helps couples meet the cost of adopting a baby, or helps with the down payment for a home or to purchase a car. There are several unique features of a Hebrew Free Loan Society. It provides loans relatively quickly, any Jewish individual may apply regardless of background, and the Society is discreet in their investigation of the person applying for the loan so as not to embarrass the borrower. Once the loan is given, a repayment schedule is established that requires the borrower to repay the loan in small increments over a set period of time.
Some Thoughts and Questions
Last week’s parasha, Yitro, included the Ten Commandments. This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, includes dozens more. Are the rules and laws that exist in our country today very different than those given by God to the people of Israel? Why or why not? What do you think are the reasons for having rules and laws? What would life be like without them? If you were asked to write ten commandments for people to live by, what would you include? Do your commandments differ greatly from the original ones?
Commandments regarding how to treat strangers appear in 36 different places in the Torah. Two of them are in this week’s parasha: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20) and “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The main difference between these two references is that the second one reminds us that we understand what it is like to be strangers. We know what it feels like, therefore, we – as Jews – need to empathize with people who are strangers. Describe a situation where you have felt like a stranger. Did anyone do anything to make you feel welcome? Think of a situation where you might be able to make a stranger feel comfortable. Is there something that your family can do together for other families in your community?
Exodus 24:12 reads “And Adonai said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and be there (v’heyeh sham)’”. Menachem Mendl of Kotzk taught that the goal is not simply to get somewhere, but to actually pay attention – to “be there” – once you arrive. Can someone be somewhere and not be there at the same time ? Can you name a situation where you were awake but unaware of what was going on around you? What things can you suggest to help you pay better attention or become involved so that you can “be there”?
Exodus 21:23 provides the classic law known as lex talionis: “the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Note that the Torah limits the punishment for crimes of bodily injury caused by human attack to no more than the equivalent loss. Our rabbis quickly maintained in both the Mishnah and the Talmud that the Torah meant monetary payment for the equivalence of each of these injuries. What do you think the Torah text meant?
In Chapter 24, Moses formally establishes the covenant between God and the people of Israel. A major part of the ceremony involves using animal blood (quite messily). Why was this done?
Exodus 24:10-11 describes the impossible and the paradoxical: “They saw the God of Israel; under God’s feet was the likeness of a paved road of lapis lazuli, like the very sky for purity. … They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” Have you ever experienced the presence of God in an unusually intense and vivid way? If so, how would you describ