Last Week I mentioned to you the great emotion that was stirred in the hearts of the people Israel as they stood in Gods presence at Sinai. God spoke out of the smoky cloud, and the people w ere greatly moved. God gave the people the "ten basic steps of achieving holiness" -- in the ten statements He made. However, he did not stop there, and while I have stated again and again over the years that those statements were NOT commandments or laws, there is no question that there ARE definite and definitive laws in the Torah. We find them, or at least some of them, in this weeks portion, and the portion begins, significantly, with the words "AND these are the laws..." The "and" is a permanent bridge between the last words of the portion from last week and the basic laws stated in this weeks portion. Maybe that is just one more clue to the nature of Gods words at Sinai. If "and these are the laws" then "the former WERE NOT the laws!" Well, enough about that, lets look forward to this weeks text, and read: [Ex.21:1-11]
I think it is very significant that the first two issues treated in the laws given by God as a consequence to the statements at Sinai deal with slavery and with the right of women. Listen to my words... Is it 1993 or is it 3500 B.C.E. -- the issues are still the same, and the voice from Sinai still rings true: No human can be the property of another. If a man works for you for six years, you must release him on the seventh year, and pay him wages for his years of labor for you... If you "sell" your daughter, it must not be for the purpose of taking advantage of her. You must not allow "white slavery" -- in any form. If you arrange a marriage, and the man does not choose to live up to his part of the bargain, the woman must have recourse in law, and she must be taken care of in a proper manner. Heady issues!
Which brings us to another consideration: the universality of the law. We pride ourselves, in this "land of the free and the brave," that all are equal before the law. However, most of us are aware that some are more equal than others. The better your lawyer, the more you can expect to get away with, and the less successful you are in life, the more your chance of getting short changed by the judicial system -- if you are so unfortunate as to become entangled with the law. I can tell you many stories of actual cases where people were deprived of their homes, or their retirement income or of basic rights against arrest simply because they did not know how to defend themselves and could not afford proper legal counsel. Yes, our justice system got rid of a president that broke the law -- but I think you will agree that it was not the breaking of the law that did him in -- it was the lies and stonewalling that followed it. Reagan did not suffer from Irangate, though his trespasses were just as serious as those of Nixon, and Bosky, a thief in the grand style, did not get a "punishment that fit the scope of his crime," either! Weinberg was pardoned, Olie Norths sentence was reversed... Only Jim Baker and Jonathan Pollard rot in jail -- theyre dangerous criminals, obviously!
Judaism had a different system, one that was instituted at Sinai, and that had as its guidelines a system of "sanctification." We did not have, for two thousand years, a police force or a court delivery system, and yet we maintained a discipline and a civility that were second to none. How did we do it? We studied Torah and followed its precepts. Torah is an open book, and is available to all. It does not say, "do unto others," it teaches each individual to do for himself. It teaches integrity, honesty, and self respect. These teaching, these precepts, can be embraced by an entire nation, an entire society. As we see a new spirit in our land, lets hope that it is the spirit of Torah. Lets hope that our new president and our new congress are heeding the word of God and will live by his sentence -- for it is universally and eternally just.
A people who live by Torah cannot falter nor fail. They are, and shall always be, as the Book of Psalms teaches us, "like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, and whose leaf does not wither, and in whatsoever he does he shall prosper."
Those of you who remember the portion of the Torah we read last Shabbat, or who recall DeMills great film about the Sinai experience, may feel that this week's portion is a great descent from the heights of last week, when we rose to the pinnacle of a great experience. We had unfolded before us the canvas on which was depicted the greatest moment in the history of a people, nay, in the history of mankind. A people, downtrodden and unruly, recently freed from bondage, came face to face with God. A people accepted its destiny, lay claim to its future, in an incandescent moment of great exaltation and ecstasy. They began a career that was the fulfillment of that destiny. No history of any other people depicts an encounter, an event, as drastic, as significant, as cosmic in its consequences as that moment at Sinai. But, as the saying goes, "that was then, this is now." What do we find in this weeks portion?
We find the most commonplace laws laws about two men quarreling, laws about farmers who did not extend adequate care to their animals, so that those animals strayed and hurt others, laws regarding the daily, commonplace differences, controversies, and personal quarrels that are not reported by the newspapers because they are not "important," not really "news."
After last week, do we not expect something more dramatic than this, something that would move us more forcefully? Why do we descend from the summit of a mountain down into the lowlands of the mundane, the usual and the ordinary, into the bitterness, the conflict, the irritation, the routine, the stark human experience in one short week?
The answer is that any law that remains solely and exclusively an embodiment of principle, that concerns itself only with vast, large, general formulation, however majestic and however high, will not affect the lives of the people for whom it is intended. Law becomes meaningful, law becomes a powerful factor in the lives of people when its great principles are translated into statutes, into ordinances, into precise and concrete enactments that tell us how to behave in present-day situations, in those encounters between one man and another, in those difficulties that arise in the normal course of our lives. The law can never remain on the mountain top. It must come down into the valley where people live, where they struggle, where they hate, where they love, where they strive, and where they reveal all of their human frailties, failings and fallibility. The law of Israel is not only a law of the mountain; it is a teaching that was not concluded in that instant at Sinai. It is a dynamic directive that becomes the specific, the concrete, the prosaic enactment.
There are three important, distinguishing marks of Jewish law that give it its particular character and set it apart from the general course of legal development in Western civilization. First of all, Jewish law is religious law. Oh, yes, I know about the great virtue of the separation of state and church -- I applaud it and I support it -- but, originally, all law was basically religious law. The law of Western civilization developed out of church law. As history moved forward, however, law, like all disciplines, achieved its autonomy, separated itself from the sources and roots of its origin, and functioned as an independent entity. And so, although it still retains some of the impulses that came to it from its origin in religion, the common law has developed in accordance with its own organic character. It is consistent with its own system. Jewish law, however, never detached itself from its religious roots; it never became independent of the entire scheme of religious values and religious beliefs. It has remained to this day fundamentally religious, and by virtue of that fact, it has a number of characteristics that distinguish it from systems of law that broke away from their religious roots.
Jewish religious law is based upon morality, and deals with every aspect of human life. There are issues that secular law does not touch -- such as the right to privacy -- but in religious law there are no such issues. A personss thoughts, intentions, private conduct, even when it has no social consequences all are included, for in religious law one is always seen as standing under God's watchful eye. In religion, all law is an attempt to make us better servants of the Lord, and consequently, one who is rooted in Jewish tradition could not have said, as the central figure of Christianity is reported in the New Testament to have said, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesars, and unto God the things that are Gods" -- unless, of course, he was advocating rendering nothing unto Caesar, since everything is "the things that are Gods." The things that are Caesars belong to God too, and Caesar may not do anything that contravenes or violates the law of God. Jewish law does not see the world broken into two parts, the dominion of one belonging to Caesar, the dominion of the other belonging to God.
All of life is a sanctuary, and we can never move away from the area of Gods sovereignty. A religious law is concerned not with protecting society, not with defending the rights of people, but with the basic premise that people should do their duty. The word Mitzvah which means duty or obligation becomes the key to this law. When two people come before a judge who deals in Jewish law, he does not concern himself solely, or even primarily with the question of which litigant is right, whose rights have been violated. He asks, what is the duty of each of these men, the offender as well as the victim, for even the sinner comes within the purview of Gods (and therefore the judges) concern. So there is always this concern in Jewish law, not for what is legal, not for what is consistent with our judicial system, but for what it is that God wants us to do, what is our duty. The judge does not sit there as an inquisitor, nor as a symbol of governmental powers, he sits on his bench as a teacher, as one to whom has been given the privilege of interpreting in human terms Gods will and Gods word.
The second characteristic of Jewish law is that it is community-oriented. The greater part of Jewish law, after the Torah, developed outside of Eretz Yisrael, and certainly developed at a time when the Jewish people no longer had any sovereignty or independence. The Mishna and the Gemara were edited after the Jewish homeland had been destroyed. The Talmud was completed in a land where the Jews were part of a far larger culture. The great code of Maimonides in the twelfth century, and the code of Juda Caro in the sixteenth century, were produced on foreign soil, where this law, mitzvot, became the only guardian of Jewish integrity. If Jews continued to live an organized and disciplined life it was because they had this law. The purpose of the law was always to serve the highest interest of the community, to bind it together, to retain for its people a sense of duty, a memory of the past and hope for the future. It is impossible for us to explain how we Jews have survived without understanding that there was a law, around which the people rallied, and that united the community with a single-minded dedication. Furthermore, this law bound Jews in far flung communities, living under different potentates and despots. In a chaotic world deprived of order and civility, the Jews had an established code that allowed them to travel and to conduct business -- which made possible their survival.
Thirdly, Jewish law was largely a system that had no power. Whenever we think of a legal system, we think of policemen and prisons as well as of lawyers, judges and juries; we think of governments that have the power to impose sanctions upon those who violate the law. There can be no legal system without prisons, penalties, and punishments for those who presume to run counter to the law. Jewish law had to function without any coercion; it could not exercise any physical or penal sanctions. There were no prisons alongside of the academies or the synagogues where the Jewish tribunal would sit. There were no policemen or bailiffs prepared to carry out the orders of the court. The judge sat completely disarmed. He had nothing, no powers -- except the conscience of the people. Jewish law addressed itself to developing the character of a people, to refining individuals as human personalities, to replacing the lack of external force with the presence of inner sanctity. The law was obeyed not because there were jails, but because a people inwardly accepted it and its decisions, and its decisions and decrees were carried out with a dispatch that no penal system ever inspired.
This is mitzvot, Jewish law. It is obvious that the entire development of Western civilization makes impossible the close association between a legal system and a religious tradition, but some of the religious values ought to be retained. The law should be defended not because it happens to be the expression of the popular will of the moment, or the current sociology, but because it is alive with enduring moral principles. The law should be concerned with people. The law must worry about the thief, just as surely as it must protect you and me from him. Why does he violate the law? What has happened to him? How can we utilize the law not only to protect the honest man, but also to restore the wrongdoer to respectability and usefulness? These are some of the important elements in Jewish law that can and should be applied in civil law -- to make it civil.
We must place greater emphasis upon inner sanction than upon the club wielded by the law when its will is flaunted. The laws that we read today, and that we shall be reading for many weeks to come, therefore, reveal a great legal system, reflect a moral code. In this system the judge becomes more the teacher and less the enforcer of the law. This system seeks ultimately to evoke mans inner devotion, and does not come at him with threats and sanctions. Anyhow, the threats seem to be ineffective, and the sanctions hurt society more than the offender. In the civil and political life we now live by other codes, yet the refinement of mitzvot, its profound insights, may still contribute to our moral and civil development. In preserving the impetus of Jewish law, we may also be preserving for Western civilization, of which we are a part, a valuable element that it ought not to lose. William Shakespeare said that the law is a ass -- which is a beast of burden. What we need to understand is that this burden needs to be mitigated with reason, with compassion for humanity and its frailty. We need to harken to the voice that was heard at Sinai -- but we must understand that the heroes of life are those who know how to conduct themselves in the daily routines of the life in the home, the marketplace and the sanctuaries where we seek God and find our true selves.
5757 -- The Loss of the 73
Imagine if you please, ladies and gentlemen, the scene in Galilee that fateful last Tuesday. It is a wintery night, bitter cold and filled with rain-snow. The time is seven o'clock, but it could just as well be two in the morning. The night sky has been rendered even more dark by the thick, black clouds. Because of the high elevation, some of these clouds actually touch the ground. The wind is howling, whipping the air and rendering the 32 degrees temperature to about zero. Suddenly there is another sound in the air, the heavy drone of hard working engines. Two helicopters, carrying between them 73 souls, air crews and soldiers-passengers, weighted down by battle fatigues and battle equipment: guns, machine-guns, mortars, ammunition, hand grenades, explosives and communications equipment. They are flying at about fifty miles per hour, at an altitude of 360 feet. Suddenly, one of the helicopters, for a reason as yet unknown, approaches the other at high speed and a collision takes place. One helicopter breaks apart and falls to the ground near the guest houses and the homes of the villagers of Moshav She'ar Yashuv. The other lingers a few seconds, its pilots trying desperately to bring it down for an emergency landing -- but to no avail. The second helicopter, too, smashes to the ground, near the cemetery of Kibbutz Dafna -- a short distance from the first crash site. Fires erupt, and secondary explosions occur at both impact sites as the explosives and the ammunition that were carried on board are detonated by the heat of the conflagration.
Tzahal, the Israel Defence Force, goes into action immediately. The whole area is quarantined, closed off to traffic. The inhabitants are asked to remain indoors, to avoid the danger of un-exploded ordinance and the sight of the mutilated remains of the fallen. All hospitals in the area are readied to treat the wounded -- but to no avail, as no survivors are found. When the army and police arrive on the scene they light up the skies with flare-rockets and see the ground strewn with debris: large and small metal fragments from the helicopters, bodies everywhere. Expert sappers from the police bomb-disposal unit carefully remove un-exploded hand-grenades from the battle dress of the dead soldiers before other soldiers place the remains on stretchers and take them to a central location for identification and preparation for burial. Khevra Kadisha, those valiant men who are responsible for preparing the dead for interment, have the unenviable and gruesome job of going over every inch of the terrain, to find and collect the scattered shattered remains of bodies that just a few hours earlier were young men, alive and full of hope and dreams and potential to change the world and make it a better place. Seventy-three victims. Seventy-three young lives, with sweethearts or wives waiting in vain for their safe return. Seventy-three families that will have to be visited by the army chaplains and officers from the units in which their dear ones served. Of course, they will not be the officers directly in charge of their son -- for those fell with their men. And who do you send to notify their relatives?
Well, what can we say? How can we reason this loss of life? This week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, contains the following passage: "Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you in the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him. But if you shall indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. For my Angel shall go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off." [Ex. 23:20-23] So we are promised "hashgakha," Divine protection -- and still these accidents happen, and still terrorists explode bombs and take the lives of so many of our brethren. Where is God, you ask?
God is in the fact that we are in a battle for our very existence and that we have not had hundreds and even thousands of casualties! God is in the miracle of our survival, at all times and against all the odds. The two helicopters where travelling to battle, and they came in harms way. God is in the miracle that they fell over an inhabited area without causing any casualties. God is in the families of the victims, who, in spite of their heavy, unimaginable loss, will continue to bear the burden of sovereignty and the cost of fighting an intractable enemy who wishes to see our total annihilation. We must not lose sight of the real cause of our loss. These men were in the air that fateful Tuesday because Syria allows Hesballah to wage war against Israel and against the inhabitants of Southern Lebanon. If we took our men out of Lebanon we would make upper Galilee vulnerable to rocket and mortar attacks as well as terrorist attacks from accross the border. The policy of having a security zone in Lebanon has been in force for more than a dozen years.
Still, seventy-three families are sitting Shiva in Israel this week -- but on Shabbat they come out of shiva, and they go to services, and they will celebrate Shabbat -- and God's timetable ordained that this Shabbat they will also celebrate Rosh Khodesh -- so they will chant the Hallel and remind themselves that He is the One who took us out of Egypt: "Betzet Yisrael mimtzra'yim -- 1. When Israel went from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion. The sea saw it, and fled; the Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the hills like lambs." [Psalm 114:1-4] They will hear us proclaim, "Yevarekh et Beyt Yisrael -- he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron. He will bless those who fear the Lord, both small and great. May the Lord increase you more and more, you and your children. May you be blessed of the Lord who made heaven and earth. The heavens are the heavens of the Lord; but he has given the earth to the children of men. The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor can any who go down into silence. But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore. Hallelujah! Lo hametim yehalelu ya velo khol yordey duma -- va'anakhnu nevarekh ya me'ata ve'ad olam, haleluya!" [Psalm 115:12-18] And hopefully, they, and all Am Yisrael, the people Israel, will be consoled over our terrible loss. Yehi zikhram barukh, may their memory be a blessing to us all.
Do you remember yesterday? I am talking of Thursday just twenty four hours away, and already a part of history. What was, was! How do we view yesterday? The Beatles recalled it with nostalgia:
All my troubles were so far away,
Now it seems that they are here to stay...
Why she went away I dont know, she would not say...
So love, and happiness, and the very reason for being is tied up with this concept of yesterday. George Aznavour had a similar attitude:
Yesterday when we were young,
There were so many songs that needed to be sung...
So yesterday is the age of innocence and challenge, a time of youth and vigor, a time when possibility exceeded imagination. Yesterday is always what could have been done which we fondly miss today in the realization that it will not repeat tomorrow.
Not so in the Torah. For in the Torah, "yesterday" we stood at Sinai and heard God speak. We were uplifted, we were inspired but we were also intimidated and frightened. Today, Moshe speaks to us, and he tells us that what God wants of us is not some lofty far off ideal that can only be met on a mountain top in the Sinai desert.
We live in an age of extremist autonomy. Each person zealously guards his or her autonomy and individuality from everybody else. We resent it when anyone presumes to tell us what is right or what is wrong, interpreting it as an attempt to impose external qualifications or restrictions on our discretion or on our behavior. We want to live by the Nike motto, "just do it!"
There is much to be said in praise of this ardor for independence and personal sovereignty. We recognize it as the strong suite of America a society that was conceived on the principle of the inviolate right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that has molded a population that cherishes originality, uniqueness, personality, creativity and free thought. Art, literature, philosophy, democracy, science and spirituality all blossom with thousands of different faces because of the absence of central controls or direction. Surely that pluralism of thought and expression is a precious heritage.
Yet we also pay a price for our inviolate right to autonomy. All this freedom, this lack of discipline or di rection also produces tremendous solitude, isolation, loneliness, drifting and superficiality. Pop psychology has taken the place of true understanding, and pop spirituality has replaced true religion. Rather than letting God into our hearts, rather than molding our behavior to conform to Gods will, we have accepted the glitz and pomp of show-business theater religion, tele-evangelists, performing preachers with guitar and tambourine, dancing maidens waving banners proclaiming that God is Good and Good is God so lets just do it, as long as we drop a few dollars for the unfortunate and the players, to be sure! Let us interpret God after our own image, and allow Him to accede to our preferences and whims. We take care of the daily routines, and God handles "the big picture."
Dont be surprised, then, if Judaism has a difficult time in contemporary life. Based on the premise that all human beings must commit to something, Judaism asserts that we are either servants of the Holy One, Blessed be He, or else we become slaves to some lesser tyrant - our drives, our work, our guilt, or, God forbid, some other human being.
Only in the service of God, in the yoke of the mitzvot, are we able to find the antidote to human bondage. This weeks Torah portion begins by telling us that no one can be a slave forever: "If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing." [Ex. 21:2] However, this rule is followed by the most serious and the most mundane matters, "And he who strikes his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death. He who steals a man, and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. And he who curses his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. If men quarrel together, and one strikes another with a stone, or with his fist, and he dies not, but keeps to his bed; he rises again, and walks out with his staff, then shall he who struck him be acquitted; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed. And if a man strikes his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he dies under his hand; he shall be surely punished. However, if he survives a day or two, he shall not be punished, for he is his money. If men quarrel, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no further harm follows; he shall be surely punished, according to what the womans husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine." [Ex. 21:15-22] So you see, we have a variety of laws and guidelines meant to shape Israelite life to conform to the lofty ethics and pervasive holiness of Gods will. Rather than perceiving those laws as oppressive restrictions and burdensome obligations, our ancestors exulted in their newfound ability to grow spiritually and morally as agents of God in the world. They teach that as a father exhorts a child to be careful not to stumble over anything and hurt himself because he is as dear to him as the apple of his eye, God, likewise, exhorted Israel concerning the commandments, because they are more beloved to God than the angels.
Judaism celebrates the love between God and the Jewish people, a love that spans all our yesterdays, and that will be there for all our tomorrows. So we dont look at yesterday with jaundiced eyes, nor do we curse todays disappointments. We are sure of Gods love, we know how to live our lives so that our tomorrows will always be blessed with happiness in His service.
This Shabbat, like every Shabbat, is the first Shabbat after the last one that we celebrated. However, last week just happened to be a most important Shabbat in terms of the reading of the Torah, for it was the time when we read of Maamad Sinai our presence at the Sinai revelation, when the Lord spoke to the children of Israel the words that have become bigger than all other words, so that eventually the Greeks tagged them as Decalogue the "Ten Commandments." Please note well that it was the Greeks, for whom form was more important than content who thus dubbed our experience, proving for all time that they understand nothing about Judaism or its teachings. You might say that Judaism "was Greek to them" or is that an oxymoron?
This weeks portion in the Torah is Mishpatim which means laws or judgements. However, it is necessary for us to note that the text begins with the words, "veele hamishpatim asher tasim lifneyhem and these are the ordinances (laws) that you shall place before them." [Ex. 21:1] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzkhaki), our great sage and interpreter of Torah that lived a thousand years ago, and is still considered as the most definitive authority on Torah text, says the following, "why does this portion begin with the word and? To teach us that last weeks fireworks are directly connected to this week nitty gritty workaday statements. This weeks words are part and parcel of the revelation at Sinai, and must not be given a lesser value or consideration."
By a strange coincidence, but not without preplanning and premeditation, to be sure, last week we had a sanctuary filled with worshipers and not only did we have people here, we had young people here, members of the United Synagogue Youth organization, the pride of a number of congregations in our sub-region, the future and the hope of our people. They came, they worshiped and learned together, they exchanged ideas and formed friendships. It was such a joy to see them here. It was, to us who shared this sanctuary with them, a heart-warming experience. However, just as the presence at Sinai was a one time experience, so also the youth convention is over, and things go back to the way they were. Once more our sanctuary has more echo that voice, more chairs than people to occupy them. On the morrow of Gods meeting with the Children of Israel, Moshe must have had the biggest let down experience of his career, second maybe (but probably not quite) to the time when the Israelites were at the east shore of the sea, with Egypt drowned in the mighty waters, and the people Israel, no doubt, complaining about the mud on the soles of their shoes... At Sinai on the day after, things must have been similar to Woodstock once the celebration was over minus the candy wrappers and other modern trash...
Celebration is great, but "Purim comes only once a year," as the saying goes, and the rest of the time we must face reality. God gave us the big picture from the mountain top but now it is time to be issue-oriented. Israel has a mission and a purpose, and we face the new day with a new agenda, thirty five hundred years ago even as we do today. We must not perpetuate the transgressions of the Egyptians we must not enslave our fellow Israelites. We must not perpetuate the transgressions of the Canaanites that caused God to remove them off the land which he gave to Israel. Thus our portion today begins with and, for it is a part of the heritage of Sinai, it is arteries and the veins, it is bones and cartilage, it is all that is the stuff of life that is under the skin that gives us our outer image, our visage. We look at one another and say, this one is handsome, that one is beautiful, and all these other are so common, so drab, so lackluster. Yet all share the same makeup under the skin! Likewise with the revelation at Sinai. God spoke to Israel, and they all stood there, shaking with excitement, with awe and with anticipation. When the day was done, when the heavenly storm was over, when the trumpets sound faded away, the revelation continued, and it was Moses who stood there alone, to learn the details of the flash of lightening, the reverberations of the thunder. For it is in the details that the miracle is made manifest.
May we never forget this lesson, may we never become a people who celebrate the gift wrap, the covering more than the content of the gift. May we never lose sight of the truth revealed to Elijah the prophet, when "a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice." [Kings I 19:11,12] And in that still small voice, the one that calls us to act with justice and loving kindness, with mercy and pity, with compassion and understanding. It sounds simple and humdrum, mundane, commonplace and totally ordinary but it is not! It sound everyday but it is, in fact, the stuff of holiness, of consecration and of the nature of God Himself. May we always know how to conduct ourselves so that we can achieve it and transform ourselves into His people, worthy of Sinai, worthy of revelation, worthy of His covenant. Amen
This weeks portion in the Torah is Mishpatim which means laws or judgements. The reading in the text begins in Exodus 21 and ends at the end of 24. Three chapters of "Mishpatim" - ordinances, laws, and regulations by which a people become civilized. Oh, yes, this book is thousands of years old, but it begins with an issue as current as this mornings news.
"If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing." [21:2] What an incredible concept - you buy a servant (or slave, as they were called in other civilizations, and you are allowed to keep him in your service for six years and no more! There are places in our world, this very day, where life is cheap and slaves are kept for all of their miserable lives.
The rights of women were evidently a solemn issue for God, and He instructed Moshe, "And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she pleases not her master, who has designated her for himself, then shall he let her be redeemed; to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her." [21:7,8] So, there was a "double standard" - if she was a servant, she lived by the rule of the servants, and was freed on the seventh year, but if she was a concubine, the master had to treat her as he would a wife!
Still, servants were property of the master, right? Not quite, not as long as this law was followed: "And if a man strikes the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, and destroys it; he shall let him go free for his eyes sake. And if he strikes out his manservants tooth, or his maidservants tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooths sake." [21:26,27]
In a civilized world, a mans freedom ends at the property line of his neighbor. Listen to the following law: "If fire breaks out, and catches in thorns, so that the stacks of grain, or the standing grain, or the field, be consumed with it; he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution." [22:5] There were also rules of proper behavior in trade between neighbors, and we read, "For every kind of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for garment, or for any kind of lost thing, which another challenges to be his, the cause of both parties shall come before the judges; and whom the judges shall condemn, he shall pay double to his neighbor. If a man delivers to his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it dies, or is hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it; Then shall an oath of the Lord be between them both, that he has not put his hand to his neighbors goods; and its owner shall accept this, and he shall not make it good. And if it is stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner." [22:8-11]
Furthermore, these rules were not for Israelites alone! There are societies today where the law favors the local person over the stranger, and the influential over the less fortunate. But the Torah teaches, "You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or orphaned child. If you afflict them in any wise, and they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry; And my anger shall burn hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children orphans. If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be a creditor to him, nor shall you lay upon him interest. If you take your neighbors garment as a pledge, you shall deliver it to him by sundown; For that is his only covering, it is the garment for his skin; Where shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he cries to me, that I will hear; for I am compassionate. You shall not revile the judges, nor curse the ruler of your people."[22:21-27]
One of the most important issues in any civilized society is the one of the steadfast rule of justice in the courts. So it is not surprising to read, "You shall not raise a false report; put not your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; nor shall you speak in a cause to incline a multitude to pervert justice; Nor shall you favor a poor man in his cause." [23:1-3] "You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor in his cause. Keep far from a false matter; and do not slay the innocent and righteous; for I will not justify the wicked. And you shall take no bribe; for the bribe blinds the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Also you shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt." [23:6-9] I find this text to be exemplary in its fairness. It recognizes that sometimes in wanting to be fair, we look at the rich and powerful and automatically evil and the poor as automatically guiltless." Not so, says our text, dont pervert justice for the poor any more than you might for the rich.
All the above issues, some seemingly petty and mundane, some which we recognize as revolutionary and truly noble in their scope and magnitude of fairness all were instituted at the time of Sinai, by the God who spoke at Sinai. We, the decedents of the people who stood at the foot of that smoky mountain should always be mindful of His beneficent grace in teaching us how to live in a world where we can truly be free and safe and happy.
Last week, after I had spoken about the important time that was celebrated in the Torah reading - the experience of Sinai, and how it was such a "special" Shabbat because of that. Aftr the servce I was approached by a congregants that claimed that "every Shabbat you tell us that "this is a special Shabbat." When are we going to have a "not-so-special" Shabbat?"
Well, there are two answers to this question. The first is that every shabbat is special. That is because it is, in fact, Shabbat - the day that God hallowed. The second is that this shabbat is a "not so special" Shabbat. I promised him that it will be that, a not so special shabbat, and it is. And why is that, you ask. I will tell you: because we have been to the mountain. We have seen the smoke and felt the earth shake, we have heard the awesome sound of the voice of God, and after that... Well, after that, even a discussion of Gods teachings becomes let that special.
This weeks portion in the Torah is Mishpatim which means 'laws or judgements.' It also means 'sentences' - the ones that are given by the judge in court, and the ones one finds in an exercise book - so many sentences make a paragraph, a page, a story. Sentences are an every-day kind of a thing. Unless, of course, you are talking of the sentences found in the Torah. These sentences are unique, for they are the teachings of the Living God. The reading in the text this week begins in 21st chapter of the book of Exodus and goes on to the end of 24th chapter. Three full chapters of "Mishpatim" - ordinances, laws, and regulations by which a people stops being slaves and become masters: masters of their own lives, masters of their destiny, masters of civilized behavior. Oh, yes, this book is thousands of years old, but that does not mean that it is "old fashioned" - in fact, it begins with an issue that is as current as this mornings news.
"If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing." [21:2] What an incredible concept - you buy a servant - or a slave, as they were call it in other civilizations - and yet you are not allowed to keep him in your service for more than six years! There are places in our world, this very day, where life is cheap and slaves are kept (and abused) for all of their miserable lives. In our Torah, though, there isnt even a word for such a condition. So our portion, though not as 'earthshaking' and profound as last weeks - still has a new and ethically revolutionary message to give to us. Having said that, we look at the rest of the portion.
We find the most commonplace laws laws about two men quarreling, laws about farmers who did not extend adequate care to their animals, so that those animals strayed and hurt others, laws regarding the daily, commonplace differences, controversies, and personal quarrels that are not reported by the newspapers because they are not "important," not really "newsworthy."
You see, a law that is solely and exclusively an embodiment of principle, that concerns itself only with vast, large, general formulations, however majestic and however high, will not affect the lives of the people for whom it is intended. Law becomes meaningful, law becomes a powerful factor in the lives of people, only when its great principles are translated into statutes, into ordinances, into precise and concrete enactments that tell us how to behave in present-day situations, in those encounters between one man and another, in those difficulties that arise in the normal course of our lives. The law can never remain on the mountain top. It must come down into the valley where people live, where they struggle, where they hate, where they love, where they strive, and where they reveal all of their human frailties, failings and fallibility.
This is precisely why one cannot be a fundamentalist or a purist in Judaism. One cannot say, "I live only by the revelation of Sinai, the authentic spoken Word of the Living God." Not if one is a Jew! We believe in a continuity of Devine teaching, which begin with Abraham and is formalized at Sinai and continues to this day. Law is an every day kind of a teaching - it is the glue that keeps people together in society. I wonder why people dislike law - the Jews have been disparaged because ours is a "religion of law." And, of course, while it is, it is not - for our religion is based on love - the love of God for humanity, and the Jews love for Gods teaching, which is manifest in His law.
Jewish religious law is based on morality, and deals with every aspect of human life. There are issues that secular law did not until recently touch -- such as the right to privacy -- but in religious law there are no such issues. A personss thoughts, intentions, private conduct, even when it has no social consequences all are included, for in religious law one is always seen as standing under God's watchful eye. In our faith, law is an extension of love of God - established to make us serve Him better. Consequently, one who is rooted in Jewish tradition is made complete and comfortable by study and fulfillment of Gods mishpatim.
One of the most amazing things about Jewish law is that for most of the ages of its existence it was largely a system that had no real power - no police or prison power to implement the law and its sentences. It is taken for granted that governments of all kinds and at all levels have the power to impose sanctions upon those who violate the law.
It is axiomatic that there can be no legal system without prisons, penalties, and punishments for those who presume to run counter to the law. Yet Jewish law had to function without any coercion; it could not exercise any physical or penal sanctions. There were no prisons alongside of the academies or the synagogues where the Jewish tribunal would sit. There were no policemen or bailiffs prepared to carry out the orders of the court. The Jewish judge sat completely disarmed. He had nothing, no powers -- except the conscience of the people. Jewish law addressed itself to developing the character of a people, to refining individuals as human personalities, to replacing the lack of external force with the presence of inner sanctity. The law was obeyed not because there were jails, but because a people inwardly accepted it and its decisions, and its decisions and decrees were carried out with a dispatch that no penal system ever inspired.
This is the lesson, then, of the not so special Shabbat and the not-so-earthshaking mishpatim that continue the fireworks of Sinai. We must place greater emphasis upon inner sanction than upon the club wielded by the law when its will is flaunted. The laws that we read today, and that we shall be reading for many weeks to come, therefore, reveal a great legal system, reflect a moral code. In this system the judge becomes more the teacher and less the enforcer of the law. This system seeks ultimately to evoke mans inner devotion, and does not come at him with threats and sanctions. Anyhow, the threats seem to be ineffective, and the sanctions hurt society more than the offender. Society is better and life is safer with Moshe Rabenu than with Dirty Harry. Brandishing a 357 Magnum, the latter proclaims, "come on, make my day." Speaking in the name of the Living God, Moshe says, "therefore choose life."
This week we read
in the Torah the portion of Mishpatim' which means judgments, regulations,
or sentences. The text, in Exodus, begins in chapter 21 and continues to the
end of 24. Four chapters of "Mishpatim" - ordinances, laws, and standards
by which a people become civilized.
Listen to the text: "If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing." [21:2] What an absolutely incredible concept - you buy' a Hebrew servant, (or slave,' as they were called in other civilizations) and you are allowed to keep him in your service for six years and no more! There are many places in our world, this very day, where life is cheap and slaves are kept for all of their miserable lives. Oh, yes - the Torah is thousands of years old, but our reading begins with an issue that is as "modern" and current as this morning's news. The only issue that is hotter than slavery today is women's rights.
These rights were, evidently, a solemn issue for God, and He instructed Moshe, "And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she pleases not her master, who has designated her for himself, then shall he let her be redeemed; to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her." [21:7,8] So, there was a "principled double standard" - if she was a servant, she lived by the rule of the servants, and would have been freed on the seventh year, but if she was made a concubine (which is to say an "auxiliary wife"), the master had to treat her as he would a wife!
Still, servants were property of the master, right? Not quite, not as long as this law was followed: "And if a man strikes the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, and destroys it; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake. And if he strikes out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake." [21:26,27] In other words, even if one has property rights over "servants," one must still treat them with human decency - or pay the ultimate "penalty" - that of granting them freedom.
"The Law," "Mishpatim," this week's lesson, has been derided, jeered and mocked by a world that claimed that our civilization is too harsh and too legalistic. Yet, considering the above examples, one is left with admiration and deep respect to a system founded on such obvious just rules of social behavior. Jewish religious law is based upon morality, and deals with every aspect of human life. A Jew's contemplations, abstractions, reflections, intentions, private conduct, even when they have no social consequences all are included, for in our religious law one is always seen as standing under God's watchful eye. In our creed, all law is an attempt to make us better servants of the Lord - and since the world is His - we must act in concert with the needs of this world. God acts in grace out of love for His world - can we, dare we do anything less?
Thus, the law is concerned not with protecting society, nor even with defending the rights of people, but rather with the basic question of what is a person's duty. The Hebrew word Mitzvah' - which has no exact translation, and is rendered in different contexts as good deed,' law' or command,' can also be taken to mean duty' or obligation' - a concept which becomes the key to Jewish law. So Jewish law concerns itself not with what is legal,' but with what it is that God wants us to do, what is our duty. The Torah judge does not sit on the bench as an inquisitor, nor as a symbol of governmental powers, he sits on his tribunal as a teacher, as one to whom has been given the privilege of interpreting in human terms God's will and God's word.
Another characteristic of Jewish law is that it is community-oriented. While the origin of Jewish law is in the Torah, its details come from the Mishna and the Gemara - texts that were written and edited outside of Eretz Yisrael, after the Jewish homeland had been destroyed, and the Jewish people no longer had any sovereignty or independence. The great code of Maimonides in the twelfth century, and the code of Juda Caro in the sixteenth century, were produced on foreign' soil, where this law, mitzvot, became the only guardian of Jewish integrity. In a chaotic world deprived of order and civility, the Jews had an established code that allowed them to travel and to conduct business -- which made possible their survival. Mitzvot also kept the Jews united in all their far flung lands of exile. East and West, North and South were united in respect of Mitzvot.
The Jewish legal system functioned without any coercion; it could not exercise any physical or penal sanctions. There were no prisons alongside the academies or the synagogues where the Jewish tribunal would convene. There were no policemen nor bailiffs prepared to carry out the orders of the court. The judge sat completely disarmed. He had nothing, no powers -- except for the reverence of Torah and the conscience of the people. Jewish law addressed itself to developing the character of a people, to refining individuals as human personalities, to replacing the lack of external force with the presence of inner sanctity. The law was obeyed not because there were jails, but because a people inwardly accepted it and its decisions. Consequently, its decisions and decrees were carried out with a fidelity and dispatch that no penal system ever inspired. Further, I believe that the law was obeyed because the people realized and accepted that it was righteous, humane, considerate, and motivated by love of God and total surrender of vanity and self-interest to the principles of His teaching of the inviolate nature of Tzedek - true teaching of God's justice.
With the current decline in religiosity and observance among Jews, coupled with lack of education of Jews in our common history, literature, and tradition, we see an alarming reduction of sense of connection and community responsibility that were once the hallmark of Judaism throughout the world. "All Yisrael are brothers," and "We are One," have become almost hollow sounding fund-raising slogans of ever-in-need Jewish federations and charitable organizations such as Hadassah, Ort, B'nai B'rith and the United Jewish Appeal. Public opinion surveys show a rapidly declining sense of ethnic identity among American Jews. And the same processes are at work in Israeli society as well. What little unity still exists in Israel is largely a function of the external security threat, not of any profound identification by most Israelis with their Jewishness.
There was a time when political parties and politicians in Jewish neighborhoods made common interest appeals for votes on "Jewish" grounds. No more! They realize that neither religion nor Israel bind Jews together. Legislators have long become used to hearing Jewish spokesman proclaim opposing views "in the name of Judaism." They have come to realize that for the Orthodox, existence begins with God's binding commands - but for the Reform, nothing is given, and "individual autonomy" remains the ultimate value. The Talmud, Tanakh and even the Torah, are closed texts to most Jews, even in Israel. Nor do common issues any longer bind us. Israel is increasingly irrelevant to American Jews, the vast majority of whom have never even visited. And even among those for whom Israel is important, there exists nothing remotely resembling a consensus about "proper" Israeli policy. Israel's current isolation is not matched by the security issues that it faces. Rather, it is a reflection of the lack of Jewish commitment.
The challenge confronting Judaism today is how to teach our children that every Jew is a brother, as well as a partner in a common mission. How, in a complicated world that demands so much of their time and offers so much to occupy that time, do we avoid losing sight of the Jewish mission. Where do we find the wherewithal to perform what seems like such a daunting task. Where do we find the resources, the motivation, and the lure that will bring our people back to the house of study, to learn and internalize the priceless treasure of our heritage, to renew the bond that binds us, to reclaim the family connection that made life worthwhile for a suffering people for more than two millennia? The Midrash tells us, "When are the Jewish people standing? When they are united together. Even an infant or young child can break a single reed. But a bunch of reeds bound together are strong and cannot be broken. The Jewish people will not be redeemed until they are a unified group." [Yalkut Shim'oni] Allow me to close with the words from Pirkey Avot: "Im ein ani li, mi li; v'im ani le'atzmi, ma ani, v'im lo akhshav - emata'y? - If I am not for myself, who shall be for me; and if I am for my self alone, what am I; and if not now - when?"
Last Week I mentioned
to you the great emotions that were stirred in the hearts of the people Israel
as they stood in God's presence at Sinai. God spoke to them out of the smoky
cloud, and the people were awestruck. God gave the people the "ten basic
steps of achieving holiness" in "Aseret Hadibrot," the
Ten Statements He made. However, you may recall that I chose to dedicate my
lesson to a much less dramatic (though possibly more enduring) subject - the
importance of properly educating our children to live by Torah and Mitzvot.
This week's portion in the Torah is called Mishpatim' which means laws, sentences or judgements. The reading in the text begins in Exodus 21 and ends at the end of 24. Three chapters of "Mishpatim" - ordinances, rules, and regulations by which a people become civilized. These are not necessarily earth-shaking revolutionary laws of ethical, judicial or social justice - though some of them are certainly new and different for the time in which they were given. The first two issues treated in the laws given by God as a consequence to the Statements at Sinai deal with slavery and with the rights of women. We find the first hints ever - and for three millennia before the world was ready to learn about these issues - that slavery needs to be abolished, that females have the same rights as males do to live unafraid and safe.
However, once again this week I wish to point out to you one of the less known and more amazing teachings of the Torah that made the Jewish people unique and more humane.
"If you meet your enemy's ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again." [Ex. 24:4]
There are many ramifications to these teachings: How does one treat animals? The Hebrew gives us a term "Tza'ar ba'ale'y kha'yim" - sharing the sorrow of living things. It means that we have to have pity and mercy and compassion for all living things. We must not relate the fate of dumb animals to the character and behavior of their owners. Thus, we can not make our compassion dependent upon what or who an animal relates to. (Of course, we are also taught to have pity and compassion for our enemy - but that is another lesson for another time...)
To be sure, if this is true of a dumb animal, imagine how much more so it would relate to people. I remember an incident in which an old woman was dazed and disoriented in a shopping mall in a small town in Michigan. She was going from one store to another, gasping for air and making strange noises, incapable of communicating her distress. This woman was known to many people in the mall. She was the mother of a "scrooge" person, a rich, tight fisted miser who loved to complain about products he purchased that did not live up to their claims. He sued a number of merchants and more than once won his case.
So here was this elderly woman, obviously suffering, plainly incapacitated - and yet she was shunned and ignored, turned away from one store after another. Nor did anyone think well enough of her to pick up the phone and call the Emergency Medical Team.
It was near closing time when I came upon her, on a bench at the edge of the mall. She was nearly exhausted, breathing short and shallow breaths. Her face was contorted in pain and frustration, and there were tears in her eyes. I asked if I could help her, and she sighed and shook her head, but she shook it up and down and from side to side, and I was not sure what she was trying to say - was it "yes" - or was it "no?" I sat down next to her and waited, waited for her to give me a definite answer, waited for her to regain her composure, waited for I know not what...
Just then a saleswoman from one of the stores passed by and warned me, "better leave that woman alone. She's crazy, and her son is a real menace to society. He'll sue the pants off you..." I stayed with the woman for about five minutes, and when she did not regain her composure, I went into the store we were sitting by and dialed 911. The E.M.T. guys were there in under ten minutes, and I told them what I knew of the situation. Then I let them do their job and went about my business.
The old woman was taken to the hospital, I found out later. She was in the middle of a stroke. She lingered a couple of days and then she died. Her son, the holy terror, sent me a letter thanking me for my kindness in noticing his mother and trying to help. Oh, yes, he sued the mall and every store owner for not helping his mother in her distress. He lost, by the way - and I agree that he should not have received any gain from his mother's misfortune. However, I also feel that he was right, that the people should have been more caring, more sensitive to a human's suffering. I guess they never read this week's portion, and they did not know that we were commanded, "If you meet your enemy's ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again." How much more so for a human being? "Ve'ahavta lere'akha kamokha - love thy neighbor as thyself." [Num. 19:18]
reading in the Torah is the portion called Mishpatim' which means
laws or judgements. It is this portion because we follow in an orderly fashion
week after week the text as it "unrolls" literally and figuratively.
The "text of the week" begins in Exodus 21 and ends at the end of
24. Three chapters of "Mishpatim" - ordinances, laws, and regulations
by which a people become civilized. Oh, yes, this book is thousands of years
old, but it begins with an issue as current as this morning's news: "If
you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall
go out free, for nothing." [21:2] Two weeks ago, in February of 2004, the
New York Times Sunday Magazine had a "cover story" on "sex slaves
on main street" in the United States, no less! Who would have believed
We read in the Psalms, "The Teaching of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the mitzvot of the Lord are pure, enlightening the eyes. The awe of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." [Psalms 19:8-10] We can see how true this passage is from the portion we read today, and from the additional reading which is done because this is the last shabbat before Rosh Khodesh Adar. This shabbat is called "Shabbat Shkalim," and we read from the Torah the text of Exodus 30, verse eleven to sixteen.
"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, When you take the census of the people of Israel according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you count them; that there should be no plague among them, when you count them. This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of the Lord. Every one who passes among those who are counted, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering to the Lord. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering to the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money of the people of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the Tent of Meeting; that it may be a memorial to the people of Israel before the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls." [Ex. 30:11-16]
The commentary of the sages gives us an insight into the text that illuminates the words of the Psalm above. "The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart" while everyone may give gifts as his or her heart directs, the "ransom for his soul" is a small amount that will not break the poor nor give the rich a chance to show off.
"The mitzvot of the Lord are pure, enlightening the eyes" superstition dictates that counting is bad luck. When you count, you take pride in an accumulation of that which is counted be it money, possessions or people. "The gods" will take note of your pride, and bring you down a step by taking away from that which you counted. The Torah overcomes this foolish idea, without calling it that, and without creating a radical change that the people may not have been able to accept, by giving a legitimate manner of "counting" that contains a promise not only of not raising God ire, "that there should be no plague among them" - but of establishing a means of obtaining pardon from God for our "other" transgressions.
"The awe of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever" God is creating a device by which one can establish a relationship with God that endures into the future. One cannot long sustain a fear of retribution and punishment. We need to know, and our faith does, in fact, teach us, that God will listen and forgive when we come before him in contrition and humility. This grace and forgiveness is precisely what the words, " it may be a memorial ... to make an atonement " are all about.
Thus the sages tell us that making an atonement is necessary for past transgressions the Golden Calf that came so soon after God revealed Himself to the Israelites at Sinai; for present shortcomings, such as the need to "count" and keep records of the volume of the People Israel, which may bring "bad luck" but will not with our God; and future transgressions, in anticipation of which we might become paralyzed in fear and awe of the Almighty God creator of heaven and earth but who will take account of our faithful participation in His teaching and our life in His path, which will bring us to live in His grace, and make atonement for our incidental transgressions.
Therefore, the Psalmist ends with, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." God's teaching, the Torah, is often called "Torat Emet" the teaching of truth. Our lives are His for the giving, and we praise and thank Him for life and for all the manifold blessings with which He has seen fit to endow us.
The reading in the
Torah for this week is from the book of Shmot, Exodus, from chapter 21 to the
end of chapter 24. The first verse of text read, “Ve’ele haMishpatim
asher tasim lifneyhem – these are the ‘Mishpatim’ which you
shall put before them...” [Ex. 21:1] The word used to translate “Mishpatim”
most often is laws, even though the best translation would be judgements or
It is interesting to note that the first two issues raised by the text deal with issues that we still have problems with in our own times, namely slavery and women’s rights – and Judaism never received the honor due it for its exemplary just stand on both issues.
I would like to deal with another part of the text, one that has been misunderstood and that caused Judaism to be defamed because of that misunderstanding. After a series of sentences dealing of issues of social justice, the text reads as follows, “If men quarrel, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no further harm follows; he shall be surely punished, according to what the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any further harm follows, then you shall give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” [Ibid. 21:22-25]
This passage was read as you see it here, verbatim, and was used to argue that Juydaism is a primitive, vindictive and unreasonably harsh religion. The whole list, from life ti bruise seemed an abuse of reason and of compassion. The only problem is, this text is taken out of context, and at least one word is translated inaccurately time and again. Let me elucidate my claim:
The law concerning murder has been set in all societies, and is given above, “He who strikes a man, so that he dies, shall be surely put to death.” [Ibid. 21:12] Judaism makes a distinction between murder and manslaughter, though – and maybe for the first time in history, as it states, “And if a man lies not in wait, but God delivers him into his hand; then I will appoint you a place where he shall flee. But if a man comes wilfully upon his neighbor, to slay him treacherously; you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.” [Ibid. 21:13,14] This, of course, is a reference to the “cities of refuge,” special towns established in the Promised Land, where people who took a life accidentally could flee – to stand trial, and if found innocent of premeditation, to remain incarcerated in for a very long period of time. Thus we learn the difference between premeditated killing, which is murder, and accidental killing which is manslaughter, but not a capital crime. Only after this issue is established do we continue to read and arrive at the “offensive” verses claiming the need for “life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
So, what is it that the world has overlooked in judging the Hebraic law so harsh? In a word, everything. Everything that is in the text before those heavy words. Let us now reexamine the text: “If men quarrel, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no further harm follows;” The Hebrew text actually says, ‘so that her children came out but no calamity follow,’ which means that while they fought with one another they accidently pushed the woman and caused her to give birth “before her time,” they are libel to paying an indemnity to the woman, the amount of which should be reasonable, based on the husband’s request and a judge’s decision as to hoe reasonable the request is.
If, by some evil chance, the woman the pushed was not ready to deliver, and she miscarries, and loses the future child, which would be considered a real calamity, “then you shall ‘nefesh takhat nefesh, Eye (takhat) for eye, tooth (takhat) for tooth, hand (takhat) for hand, foot (takhat) for foot, Burning (takhat) for burning, wound (takhat) for wound, bruise (takhat) for bruise.” The term ‘nefesh’ is NOT life, rather it is ‘soul’ or ‘spirit.’ The interpreters of Torah asked, how can you take a life for less than accidental killing – for which we know that the punishment is not death? Also, the term used in capital crime was, “shall be surely put to death” [see above] – while here we read the term “nefesh takhat nefesh.”
So the Rabbis conclude that the verse, and the ones that follow to reenforce and announce with total certainty are meant to imply a payment of a proper indemnity. Beyond that, there is the issue of the word “takhat” – which is not really ‘for,’ but rather ‘in place of!’ We are familiar with the word from the ‘binding of Isaac,’ where we read that after Abraham was prevented from offering his son as a sacrifice, he took a ram and “ya’alehu l’ola takhat bno – he offered him up as a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” [Gen 22:13] So also in our text this week, the ‘nefesh’ has to be offered ‘in the stean of’ the lost soul. The sages asked, “what use would it serve the mother if the life of those who pushed her would come to an end?” They reasoned that rather than taking their lives, they need to be responsible for the future of the woman, as a son would have been responsible for her when he grew to manhood.
The Holy One, God Almighty, taught Israel a Torah of love and kindness, mercy and tzedek, a term that does not exist in any other tongue, a conbcept that is uniquely Jewish: doing that which is correct and fitting, “the right thing” in the given circumstances. We praise Him and thank Him for His Torah and for His enlightenment.
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