Reading through the Sedra, the first verse in Revii jumped off the page at me. ‘You shall not curse a judge, neither shall you curse a prince among your people (Shemot 22:27).’ It did not seem to follow on from what came before, nor connect with what comes after. I looked at the hebrew text and didn’t see the word I expected for judge – shofet, but Elokim which has a completely different connotation for me, being one of the names of Hashem.
Although the Torah is often accused of being unkind to animals there are many instances when we are specifically commanded to take care of them. One such instance is found in Mishpatim Chapter 23:5, “If you see your enemy’s donkey lying down under its burden and would refrain from raising it up, nevertheless you must raise it up with him”. The Torah demands that we struggle against unkind human feelings. Disliking an owner does not give us the right to ignore the suffering of the animal, or other members of the person’s family.
It would be quite legitimate to feel that our Torah readings up
until this point have been narrative, historic and ethical in their
import. For the most part the Sidrot that remain until Simchat
Torah are legislative in their character.
This week’s parsha follows the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and contains laws regarding such palatable topics as slavery, matricide, kidnap, and grievous bodily harm, alongside the more idealogical laws for social justice and restitution. Mishpatim finishes by giving names to the festivals that we celebrate today; speaking of a prophecy about the conquering of the land of Canaan; and finally, a confirmation of the covenant.
“A life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand …”
A very powerful, but troubling, ‘mishpat’ (judgement) from this week’s parashah.
The Sidra of Mishpatim contains 53 consecutive laws. The mystics point out that the number 53 is equal to the numerical value of the Hebrew word GAN, which means ‘garden’. This imparts a message which teaches that when we observe the fundamental laws of our Torah, we can enjoy the world, in the same way as we can enjoy a garden. Thus, without observing these laws, the world becomes like a wild jungle, where human beings devour one another at will. According to our ancient rabbis, all the laws contained in this Sidra were declared at Mount Sinai, at the same time as the 10 Commandments.
“Mishpatim" is usually translated as "statutes", eminently reasonable laws, relating to social or economic activities. This parasha also deals with seemingly mundane issues, such as helping someone’s donkey: “If you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its burden, and you refrain from assisting him, you shall repeatedly help with him”.
The Sidra of Mishpatim, which means social laws, is a logical sequence to the 10 Commandments which precede it. In fact, it is a commentary on them. The mediaeval commentator, Nachmanides, says that it is, particularly, a continuation of the 10th commandment which commands us not to be envious. If a person does not have any sense of social order and justice, there is nothing that would stop him from being envious. As a consequence, he will take for himself things that do not belong to him.
Mishpatim interrupts the narrative flow to teach us about employment and property law, health and safety, damages and restitution, prohibiting seduction of children (Ch 22 v 15), and insisting on kindness to strangers. Revolutionary new laws, very far from those pertaining in any society at that time, and not yet reached in ours in some respects.
This week’s Sedra, Mishpatim, meaning “laws and judgements” contains both civil and ritual laws that govern the relationships between G-d, man, and the inner self.