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Dan Has Questions About The First Laws: Parshat Mishpatim

02/15/2023 12:00:06 PM


Dan Leemon

Last week's Parshah laid out the 10 Commandments, the framework for all of the laws that come afterward. This week's Parshah is called Mishpatim, which means "laws". In case you thought 10 laws was all we needed, in this week's Parshah, God begins to provide many more laws for us to follow.

The Parshah begins with laws about slavery. Unfortunately, in ancient times, even Jews sometimes owned slaves. The Torah specifies that slaves must be offered their freedom after six years of slavery. This was a revolutionary idea in its time. God then gets much more specific about what crimes are punishable by death. The Torah specifies the death penalty for intentional murder, or death follows an intentional injury, and for kidnapping someone and selling him or her into slavery. It also says the death penalty is not applied if someone is killed by accident. 

- Do you have an opinion about the death penalty? This is a big question many people still discuss today: Should some crimes still be punishable by death?

As with much of the Torah, the context for these laws is very important. Remember that in ancient times the penalty of death was not only common, it was applied unequally - whichever King was in power at the time would decide what the punishments would be, and you could be put to death for stealing, not bowing to the kind, or many other things. So when the Torah specifies what crimes are worse than others and that punishments should match the severity of the crime. Secondly, it is saying that punishments are not at the whim of a king, but should be specific and known ahead of time. 

- Can you imagine a world in which the rules of crimes and punishments are not clear or well-defined? What would that be like?

- Do you ever feel like the rules you have to follow are arbitrary or unfair?

Here are two you might disagree with: The Torah says that hitting your parents, or cursing your parents, is punishable by death! This brings further definition to the commandments that says "Honor your father and your mother."

- Why do you think the Torah puts such an emphasis on respecting your parents and treating them well?

The Torah then spells out a principle you may have heard before: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.

- What do you think this means?

- Should we take this literally, and, if so, is it fair?

- What is the principle behind "an eye for an eye"?

The principle is that the punishment be proportional to the crime. Even long ago, "an eye for an eye" was not applied literally.

Last week, we read about all the conflicts people were having, and how they were coming to Moshe for judgments. This week's Parshah attempts to make some of the more common situations clear: If your animal injuries someone, you are not held responsible - but if this happens again, if it is known that your animal is dangerous, then you're definitely responsible. If you dig a pit and you don't cover it, and a person or animal falls into you, you are responsible. If you steal someone's cow or lamb and slaughter it, you have to pay them back with four or five of the same animal. The Torah then says that you should not mistreat a widow or an orphan. It says if you lend a poor person money you may not take advantage of him or her - if you take an article of clothing as security for the loan, you have to return it by nightfall.

- Do these laws make sense to you? Are they relevant in today's world?

One of the 10 Commandments says we must not "bear false witness" - meaning we must not lie about what someone else did. Here the Torah also says we must not accept someone else's lie as the truth. And God goes on to tell us that we should not follow the majority to do evil?

- Has anyone ever lied to you? How did you know? Were you able to do anything about it?

- If your friends are doing something you know you shouldn't do, is it hard to resist? What can you do in that situation?

God tells us that if we find stray animals, we must look for the owner and return them, and if we see an animal that is collapsing under its burden - say a donkey that has been given too much to carry - we must help it. The Torah says we should not accept bribes, and we should not mistreat strangers because we were strangers. And we are told that every seven years we should not harvest our fields or orchards but instead leave the harvest for the poor.

- What do all of these laws - about whether we injure other people, or if our animals injure someone, or if we leave an open pit and somebody gets hurt, or if we mistreat widows or orphans, or lie or follow the crowd to do evil - have in common? What kinds of behavior do they control?

- What, if anything do these laws have to do with God?

- Why do you think all of these first laws are about how we treat other people?

Mishpatim then turns to the subject of holidays.

- Any guesses as to the first holiday God tells us to observe (hint: we don't usually think of this as a holiday because it comes more than once a year)?

Shabbat comes first in this list of holidays. The Torah then specifies three when we should bring sacrifices to God. The feast of unleavened bread (Pesach) was described when we left Egypt, and the Torah now adds Sukkot and Shavuot to the holiday list. And in the midst of describing these festivals and their observance, the Torah says "do not cook a kid (a baby goat) in its mother's milk."

- What's the point of this rule? Why does it matter how we cook an animal?

When Moshe tells the people everything God has said so far, all of the above rules and laws and punishments, once again the people say "we will do everything God has said," just as they said in last week's Parshah.

- Do you think the people will follow through on this promise?

- If you had been there, would you have accepted all these laws? Would you have disagreed with any of them?

God then tells Moshe to write everything down, and calls Moshe up onto Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandment carved in stone. Moshe will be gone for 40 days - and all will not be well when he returns!

In meantime, I wish you a restful Shabbat, with time to contemplate how we can take the Torah's lesson of fairness and humanity to heart.

Shabbat shalom,


Wed, March 22 2023 29 Adar 5783