Mishpatim (Rules)

Exodus 21:1 to 24:15

MishpatimTorah presents 613 laws. The purpose of most is clear. However, many seem dated or have no practical purpose. How are we to view and practice these laws?

In last week’s text the Israelite people received the Ten Commandments. The parsha ended with God speaking to Moses: “Thus shall you say to the Israelites. You ourselves saw that I spoke from the heavens. With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold. Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to your and bless you….” (Ex. 20:19-21)

With the words shown above and those in this week’s parsha, the content of Torah makes a huge change from an account of the lives of the Israelite people … to an ongoing list of rules, laws, and commandments. For the most part, the presentation of these mishpatim (rules, laws and commandments) will continue to the end of Torah.

The brief ending from last week’s parsha and this entire parsha have become known as the “Book of the Covenant.”

The Israelites now have a code or standard to live by …. They are instructed what is correct and what is wrong. Then, to give these mishpatim a lasting authority… the source is not Moses who delivers them to the people, but the ultimate authority … God.

In comments at the end of this week’s parsha, Gunther Plaut outlines these laws as follows:
Ex. 20:19-22:16 – worship preamble, serfs, capital and non-capital offenses, property.
Ex. 22:17-23:9 – moral and religious duties, justice.
Ex. 23:10-19Shabbat and holidays.
Ex. 23:20-33 – results if people follow these mishpatim. (The Torah, a Modern Commentary, p.526)

It is understood that these are laws are not only for the Israelites at the time of Moses, but for Israelites (and Jews) for all time. But after reading these laws we discover they apply to the slaves we keep, the livestock that is owned by us and our neighbors, rules about agriculture, sacrifices, plus comments on how to deal with neighboring peoples at the time of Moses ….. We also read that “One who insults one’s father or mother shall be put to death.” (Ex. 21:17) …. We are also introduced to the concept of “an eye for an eye.” (Ex. 21:23-25) While most of laws presented are timeless, many don’t seem to apply to us … Jews living in a modern, urban community.

Moses Maimonides (Rambam) sees all these laws as an effort by God to improve the behavior of mankind. His response to the laws he does not understand or those which he feels have no meaning is a follows: “It is fitting for a person to meditate upon the law of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. However, a law for which a person finds no reason and understands no cause should not be considered trivial … One should be on guard not to rebel against a commandment decreed for us by God only because the reason for it is not understood. (Mishmeh Torah, book 9, chapter 8… as quoted in H. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, p 54) Another commentator claims that, through the observance of the commandments. the people will become more refined and strengthened in character and behavior. For example by following the laws of kashrut, which don’t seem to have any real purpose, the people will become more sensitive toward the treatment of animals. Other laws help to improve world around us by adding kindness and justice to the world. “By observing mitzvot we become more just and loving and add to the good in our lives and in the world. (Ibid, p. 55)

Rabbi Abahu (290-320 C.E.) sees the commandments in a slightly different way. He argues that “the commandments were not necessarily just a way to improving human behavior, but also a means of preserving the survival of the world! …. God created the world as a gardener creates a beautiful orchard. The commandments given to Israel are like instructions given to those chosen to tend the garden. If they are followed, the orchard would survive, flower, and feed all who require its food.” (Exodus Rabah 30:9 quoted in A Torah Commentary for Our Times, p. 55)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that being a Jew is not just the act of performing rituals and moral deeds. It is realizing that by doing mitzvot, one is seeking to do what God wants of us. In addition to protecting and ennobling man… they also discipline and inspire him…. They elevate mankind to new levels of holiness…. They deepen the awareness and sensitivities and awareness of what God requires of us.

And lastly, returning to the questions of those mitzvot that are not understood, are dated, or seem to serve no purpose. When studied, they may point to new ideas or concepts we had not considered. Also, some commentators have suggested that these troublesome mitzvot may have solved problems in the past …. Or be solutions to problems of the future of which we are not aware.

Now our task is to study the mitzvot of Torah and in doing so … add insight on how to better ourselves and the world in which we live …. And, at the same time, add holiness and develop a closer relationship to God.

Earl Sabes

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