This week’s parashah contains much of the legislation that was to govern the life of Israel, the redeemed people of G-d. Certainly, the wisdom and fundamental fairness of YHVH’s system of justice and government is apparent in much of the parashah. The beginning of the portion deals with a subject that makes us a bit uncomfortable, however. It describes how the institution of slavery was to be practiced in Israel.
Certainly, slavery was an integral feature of the ancient world and fulfilled important economic functions. The way it was dealt with in this week’s parashah is very enlightened compared to the way it was practiced among Israel’s contemporaries. Slaves could only serve six years and then they were to be freed. And especially in the treatment of women servants, the concern for the basic dignity and respect of the individual is apparent. We wonder, however, how G-d could allow slavery at all after He had just redeemed Israel from helpless servitude to the Egyptians.
Besides the aforementioned differences, a beautiful picture of willing service to a master emerges from this passage. Look at Shemot (Ex) 21:5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and my children and do not want to go free’..”. It is difficult for us to imagine a slave making such a statement. Why wouldn’t he want to go free, isn’t that the ultimate goal of everyone; to be unrestrained and unburdened by obligation, to be able to go and do what we want without having to answer to anyone?
There are two answers to that question. First of all, when an Israelite master lived according to the covenant, his life being a living embodiment of G-d’s intention for His people, his servant would so love and admire him, and working for him would be such a pleasure and he would have such a feeling of loyalty to his master, that spending the rest of his life in his master’s service would be the most joyous and meaningful thing he could do. That in itself would be a wonderful testimony of a godly man.
On a deeper level, G-d’s relationship with Israel was to be just as meaningful. YHVH brought Israel out of Egypt, not to give them unbridled freedom but so that they would serve Him. They were like a slave in the market. G-d redeemed them from their old master, Egypt and bought them for Himself. And He intended to be the kind of Master Israel would consider it a joy to serve. Our life in Mashiyakh is similar. Rav Sha’ul puts it this way; “Thanks be to G-d that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom 6:17, 18) HaSatan had us bound, we were his slaves but we were bought with the price of the Messiah’s death so we can no be slaves to righteousness, servants of the Most High. We are not redeemed and freed from sin to do what is right in our own eyes. That reminds me of the parable about the demon who is cast out and when he returns find the house clean and empty and brings seven worse than himself. We can be slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness; that is a slave to what G-d considers right-Torah. Our redemption is for a purpose and we will find out that the master we serve is the most loving and wonderful One, the One to whom we gladly give our very lives.
This week we begin to get into some more specific regulations for the community of Israel. Many of the regulations for life and property are included to allow the people to live together in peace and justice. Torah is for real people, people who make mistakes, people who live in the real world. Sometimes we forget this because we look at Torah as some ideal teaching for a people that never had the problems we do. But violence and thievery and liability and responsibility for wrongs have always been part of the human condition and Torah is there to teach us how to deal with it properly.
Included in this section of the covenant is a prohibition against eating meat from an animal that had been killed by another beast in the field (Ex 22:30). We cannot eat of an animal that we did not kill ourselves but is found dead. The p’shat (literal, simple meaning) here is rather obvious. The remez (hint) is that G-d cares about every aspect of our lives, including what we put into our mouths. Often we do not think it is important, we misinterpret the teaching of Yahushua that it is not what goes into a man that makes him ‘unclean’, and we assume G-d doesn’t really care if we have a ham sandwich or a shrimp cocktail. It can’t have any real impact on our ‘spiritual lives’.
The fact is that although we may relegate kashrut to those commands we regard as ‘the least’ YHVH tells us that they are crucial to developing true righteousness and intimate fellowship with Him. The command we are looking at is preceded by the phrase ‘people of holiness you shall be to me..’ The command for us to be holy is tied directly to this command regarding food. There is something very important here and even the followers of Yahushua understood that, they included the prohibition in the Jerusalem council decision.
This command is for those who truly fear YHVH and demonstrate that fear through obedience because it says something about their relationship with G-d. Think about a torn animal. It has met some unfortunate end, it died prematurely, if it were a moral being, we would say it had been judged worthy of such a demise. The torn animal represents the judgment or severity of YHVH. As the people of G-d who have experienced the grace of His salvation, we do not partake of such things. Eating the torn animal shows that one does not really care about serving G-d and therefore there has been no change of heart or mind and one remains under the strict judgment of Elohim. When we desire to obey even this command, we demonstrate our desire to serve our Master with diligence and precision and anyone who has such qualities even in the food they eat at home has experienced the grace of G-d and no longer rests under judgement. We become ‘people of holiness’. Through our obedience we embody His grace and become more and more like our creator; holy, righteous and good.
Parasha Mishpatim expounds primarily upon the second half of the Ten Commandments, those that deal with our relationship with our fellow man. There are laws dealing with theft, slavery, murder, personal property, wayward and dangerous animals, lending money and general neighborly responsibility. The punishments vary from restitution to death. There is one thing conspicuously absent however; prison. Prisons were known in the ancient world as the story of Yosef attests. Yet in the camp of Israel there are no prison tents, no guards, no policemen. The story of their journeys through the wilderness shows that there were those who did not follow the law. What was done with them?
Justice was obviously swift in ancient Israel. When an individual was convicted of a capital crime, whether personal injury or religious violation, the death penalty was carried out swiftly. A fifteen year appeals process was not known to Israel. There was no need to detain someone longer then a few days while witnesses and evidence were compiled and judgement rendered. Innocent parties were released and guilty individuals were taken outside the camp and stoned. No tax money required for incarceration. Simple enough.
What about those who broke the law for which the penalty was not death? How did they pay their debt to society. First of all, there was no such thing as "Korah vs. the Commonwealth of Israel". Injuries were personal and it was two individuals who came before the judge. If it was a capitol crime, it was the closest family member who was responsible for avenging his kin’s blood or the witnesses who threw the first stone. Victims were not pawns in the system, they were the primary participants.
Those convicted of non capital offenses had two methods of restitution. They could pay an amount determined by the judge and the victim. Criminals, however, are usually not people of means which is why they become criminals. How do these people pay? Through their labor, they are sold into slavery. This accomplishes two things. First, restitution is actually paid to the victim. So often in our society, restitution is a joke, it never gets paid. And it is rather difficult to pay restitution sitting in prison watching TV.
The second is they are sold to another Israelite where they learn the value of work and responsibility. It is a law abiding religious family and being in such close contact will hopefully rub off on the deviant and set him on the straight and narrow. The family has a responsibility to send the criminal off with some of their household wealth so he will have the means to begin life anew as a free man. Such a system costs the taxpayers nothing, is a benefit to the person who owns the slave, keeps the criminal from associating with others and offers the real possibility of rehabilitation.
This parasha contains the basic rules and principles for the emerging nation of Israel. Laws of justice, laws of commerce, regulations for interpersonal relationships. As one who has been involved in the political process and keeps up with current events in the United States and around the world, I can only wish that our nation and world operated according to the principles contained in this parasha. I would love nothing more than to put 95% of the lawyers in this country out of business simply by following the guidelines of restitution outlined here.
Other than Shabbat, there are three moedim, appointments or festivals, of YHVH contained within our parasha. During the feasts of Unleavened Bread (not Pesach), the Feast of the Harvest (Shava’ot/Pentecost) and the Feast of Ingathering (Succot/Tabernacles), all the men of Israel are to appear before YHVH. Although they were divided into tribes and their allotment of land would separate them until they were united under David, they were to come together as one people three times a year. They were to demonstrate the principle of Echad, being one. This was an important lesson on many levels.
First, on a purely political and cultural level, bringing the people together for a common purpose solidified the nation. When the United States was founded, it was originally a confederation of states, much like the tribes of Israel under the judges. Without a strong central government or a common purpose, in our case the Revolutionary War, to unite the groups into action, they quickly splintered and became weak in their bond. They was no longer the proverbial strong cord but a few weak strings without common interest to tie them together. Common cause, common threat, common celebrations, common culture, these are the things that bring and keep people, groups and nations together. On this level, these festivals were to accomplish the physical and cultural unification of Israel.
On a higher level, we know that these are YHVH’s festivals, His appointments, and the spiritual application and meaning is preeminent. This is especially important for us who may not share in the socio-cultural life of the nation of Israel. The festivals teach spiritual lessons. They recall the miraculous provision of God and our need for purity from sin-Unleavened Bread. The harvest festivals remind us to always give our best to God and that it is He who gives us the bread we eat and the power to gain wealth. But how do such lessons tie in with echad, the unity of Israel?
Echad is a deep and important concept. When we say the Sh’ma we are not simply affirming that there is one God as opposed to a pantheon. In fact, the echad of the sh’ma may have very little to do with this. It may speak much more to the unity that God has with his creation and even more importantly, with us. We are all made in His image, we know that. We also know that He put His ruach within us to give us life. Each one us has a little piece of the Eternal within us and this spirit within us connects us to God and each other, we are all echad. It also gives us the potential to exercise great spiritual power, either good or bad. After the fall, the people used their echad for evil. After the flood, they came together, ‘echad’, again and God said that nothing would be impossible for them as they grew in understanding of the power of their oneness. One man is limited in power. Can one man make a difference? Only in his ability to unite other around his cause. Otherwise he’s just a cook and an nuisance. But by unifying their spirits a group and a nation can accomplish great things, either good or evil. Hitler unified the German people for evil and destruction. David unified Israel for righteousness. These festivals were for brining Israel together to concentrate spiritual power through their Echad to accomplish great things for YHVH on the earth. May we learn the lessons of Echad so we too may accomplish great things for YHVH as a people.
What is the fundamental nature of the revelation of Torah? The initial covenantal revelation continues from last week’s parasha and concludes this week with the sealing of the covenant with the people and Moshe and the elders meeting God. How do we understand this and how was it given? Did YHVH sit Moshe down and dictate to him? Was Moshe just a real smart lawyer who came up with this on his own? Is every word eternally true and equally applicable at all times and all places? Was it just for that time and place? Is the Torah a ‘living document' that can be changed over time and if so, how? I believe there is another way to understand the Torah revelation.
Torah is simply the codification of the principles of cause and effect in the universe. We all understand cause and effect in physical and scientific terms. There is a law of gravity that we all live with and operate under. Regardless of whether we agree with it or not, it rules over our lives. If we act as though the law of gravity does not apply to us, we will suffer very negative consequences. Torah is similar. There are causes and effects in sociological situations as well and these effects are just as immutable as those of the physical universe. That means they are applied equally in all cultures and all times.
Moshe understood these eternal laws. Not because they were dictated but because he could perceive the transcendent nature of all levels of reality and was wise enough to see how they applied in his time and culture. Slavery, for example, was part of the ancient world, a fact the Israelites were well acquainted with. It is also part of the justice system and as such, it can be very effective when applied properly. As someone who has been stiffed out of payment by people that have nothing, I understand that today monetary court judgements mean nothing. Debtors prison accomplishes nothing but forcing people to work to pay off debt is a valuable sociological institution. People will take their covenants seriously and responsibility will be encouraged in all parties. By setting a time limit on it the debtor will receives a fresh start and the punishment will fit the extent of the crime. The owner of the slave is protected from one who would manipulate the system by limiting his generosity. All sides, and society at large, are winners. Ignoring it leads to societies breakdown and distrust on all sides. Slavery for life de-emphasizes the humanity of the slave. If people are not held accountable for their contracts and there is no remedy, con men and women proliferate and people distrust one another. Does this sound familiar? It should, it is us.
Protection of the family unit is a central feature of Torah as well. The death penalty for adulterers and disobedient children are there to ensure stable and productive family units that benefit the community as a whole. We know that most criminals learned a lack of respect for authority in the home. Such children would either learn respect or they would not become adults. Two parents are nearly essential for a family’s proper functioning and prosperity and marriage, and proper parenting, is based on trust. Trust is dissolved with adultery. Ignoring these things breeds out of control children, single parent homes that are very likely to be poor and disdain for covenental responsibility. After all, if one does not respect the marriage covenant, why take other covenant responsibilities seriously?
All the laws of Torah can be explained in beneficial sociological or physical terms. We ignore these at our peril. It is our shortsightedness or our desire not to offend that keeps us from understanding and applying these laws. We would not think twice explaing the law of gravity to someone about to walk off a cliff. Yet a parent that allows their children to be disrespectful or out of control or a person having an affair or showing no respect for covenants or others property does not receive the same urgent warning. We make excuses or prescribe therapy or give them another break. Yet the deliberate ignorance of these laws leads to anarchy and the death of society just as surely as stepping off the bridge leads to the death of the individual.