Exodus 21:1 to 24:18 – Moses is given the rules, laws, and ordinances that will shape and define the Israelite nation.
This week there is a great change in the format of Torah content. Since Genesis we have read about the dramatic, four generation story of a family that worshiped the Eternal (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) …. Then, in Exodus, this family grew into a people that was feared by it’s Egyptian rulers.
Now, Torah’s content changes from one centered on the story to a text that focuses on the laws that will govern these people ….The Eternal is about to take a major step into shaping this people into a nation through the Ten Commandments and the rules, laws, and ordinances that we will read in this weeks parsha. But these laws are different from those of other nations of the time. This difference is reflected in a concept stated at the beginning of Genesis – all mankind is created in the image of the Eternal, a God that reflects JUSTICE, MERCY and COMPASSION. The laws we review this week reflect these divine concepts and add a strong measure of EMPATHY. These laws are for all the people…. the common man … the heads of the secular state … the leaders of the faith. The laws apply to all…. not one set of law for the rulers and other for their subjects – the people.
The parsha begins with a series of laws dealing with slavery. Yes, slavery was common at the time when these laws were formulated. But, this covenant gives the slaves many rights. Hebrew slaves are to be freed during the seventh year of the yearly cycle. Slave families are to be kept together. Injured slaves should be given their freedom.
The listing of laws continues by stating that all Israelites are required to compensate injured parties when they are at fault for an injury or loss of property.
All Israelites are required to aid the needy – the widows, orphans, and the handicapped in the community. Other laws forbid the Israelites from taking monetary interest from others in the Hebrew community.
All Israelites are commanded to not oppress the strangers in their land. The Eternal follows this commandment with the statement that the people must remember that they were strangers in the land of Egypt. … Even the stranger should be recognized as a whole person with rights.
It is important to note that all these laws reflect the concept of empathy. Every person is required to look beyond their own personal needs. Their actions should be shaped by the needs and feelings of others.
For the first time …. All people are equal in the view of justice … all people from the lowly water carrier to the Chief Rabbi and head of the community….. EQUALITY and EMPATHY have been legislated!