Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Mishpatim – Sh’mot (Exodus): 21- 24

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Mishpatim – Sh’mot (Exodus): 21- 24

"This Parasha is extraordinarily rich in variety of themes, and multiplicity of laws, judgments and statutes governing every facet of human existence. This comprehensive legislation covers relations between man and society, between members of the same community and between peoples, between man and man, man and his enemy, between man and plant and animal. The Torah therein regulates the life of the Hebrew person at work and at leisure, on Sabbath and festival and relations between man and his Maker."[1] We will examine some of Parashat Mishpatim’s terms against the backdrop of this summary.

"And these are the judgments which you shall put before them…" are the opening words of our Parasha. The singular form of “mishpatim” (“judgments”) is “mishpat”, the root letters being sh.p/f.t (shin, pey, tet). Last week we saw that YHVH's instructions to His People are not to be defined simplistically as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts'. “Mishpat” may be compared to last week's “chock” - "law", which is also to “engrave", and to “pikudim” - "precepts" (a glimpse of which we had in Parashat Shmot 3:16, where it appeared as the verb to “visit"). Likewise, “mishpat” also has a variety of meanings, such as "just" (Deut. 32:4), and "justice" (Is. 16:5). In this Parasha, “mishpat” is used several times as "arbitration" and "decision making" (21:31), as well as "legal right" (23:6) and "custom" (21:9). According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament it also means to “govern or rule", and is "a word of broad meaning". [2] Thus, although some of the “mishpatim” could be termed as "judgments" in the stricter sense of the word, this judicial term is couched in a much larger social and spiritual framework, a framework that is rooted in YHVH's Torah, which is anything but a strictly official and legal codex.

Let us go back to our opening verse once again: "And these are the judgments which you shall put before them". Notice that Moshe is told, to “put" or "place" the judgments before the Israelites. "Put", as used here, appears to be almost out of place, unless it is tied to some image, such as we encounter in Ya’acov (James) 1:22-25: “…Become doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the Word, and not a doer, this one is like a man studying his natural face in a mirror; for he studied himself, and has gone away, and immediately he forgot of what kind he was. But the one looking into the perfect Torah of liberty, and continuing in it, this one not having become a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in his doing.”

The Torah, which is to reflect the new nature of “am s'gula” (“a treasured People” as mentioned last week in Parashat Yitro), is likened to a mirror. "Placing the mishpatim before the people" becomes clear, therefore, especially when considering the Israelites' response last week: "All which YHVH has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8) and this week too (ref. 24:3). Thus these “mishpatim” constitute one of the aspects reflecting and revealing the ‘new nature’ (and indirectly also ‘flesh’ and sin) of YHVH's special and holy people (ref. 22:31), which they observe each time they look "into the prefect Torah of liberty". And what is it that they first see there? "When you buy a Hebrew slave (“eved” – “one who works”), he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing" (21:2). What could be more appropriate for the newly released slaves than to act with consideration and kindness toward their own brethren who have met with this predicament? Is it any wonder then, that this is the first ruling that they encounter as they look into the “mirror” which has been “placed before” them? Various dimensions of this topic are dealt with all the way through to verse 11. A variety of regulations ensue, mostly dealing with acts of violence, followed next by rules regarding damages caused specifically by one's livestock (chiefly oxen).

Reparations for these damages proceed (chapter 22:1-15), leading to various moral and ethical issues, as well as to the treatment of the defenseless. In verse 20 we read: "You shall not torment an alien. You shall not oppress him, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt." The word for "alien" is “ger”, from the same root as “gur” (g.u.r, gimmel, vav, resh), to “live somewhere, dwell, or sojourn”. According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, "the root means to live among people who are not blood relatives… thus, the ‘ger’ was dependent on the hospitality that played an important role in the ancient near east.” [2] Some examples of the way this word is used are as follows:

· Avraham sojourned in Egypt during the famine in the Land of Yisrael (Gen. 12:10).
· Lot was scornfully called a sojourner by the people of Sdom (ref. Gen. 19:9).
· Hebrews 11:9,13 characterizes the Patriarchs as those who considered themselves pilgrims
and aliens, (and did not regard themselves as members of this sin-ridden world).
· Ya'acov described his stay with Lavan as a sojourn (ref. Gen. 32:5).
· Ya’acov’s sons described their status in Egypt as that of sojourners (ref. Gen. 47:4).
· The Elohim of Yisrael is termed this way, when not welcome among His people (ref. Jer. 14:8).
· Finally, in the age to come, the wolf will be the "protected citizen" of the lamb (Is. 11:6). [3]

The Torah’s cautions regarding all behavior towards the ‘stranger’ number no less than 36 times; more times than it deals with any other command![4] This fact powerfully speaks for itself - yet in modern Yisrael, the hundreds of thousands of foreign workers and present-day sojourners live under appalling conditions, and many times are also cheated out of their rightful wages. A similar theme is reiterated in 23:9, with the addition…"you know [understand] the soul of an alien, since you were aliens in the land of Egypt." The Israelites are most emphatically expected to empathize with the alien, having once been in that humbling station themselves. Since the Israelites are to remember at all times having “come out of Egypt”, there is really no excuse for forgetting the conditions of the less fortunate and for lording it over them! Interestingly, “gur” is also “dread, fear”. Thus, being a stranger placed one in a vulnerable position, requiring protection by the local inhabitants. Moreover, if the many repeated lessons of sojourning have not been sufficiently learned, the Israelites may find themselves aliens all over again (e.g. Deut. 28: 63ff.).

Our text continues in verses 22:22-24 as follows: "You shall not afflict an orphan or a widow. If you afflict him, if he at all cries to Me, I will surely hear his cry, and My anger shall glow, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall become widows, and your sons orphans." Once again we turn in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) to the Epistle of Ya'acov (James), where we read…"Pure and undefiled religion before Elohim and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions" (1:27). In the same vein, Sh’mot 23:3 and 6 read, respectively, "And you shall not favor the lowlydah’l - in his lawsuit" and "You shall not pervert the judgment of your needy one – “evyon” in his lawsuit." And although “favor” and “pervert” are certainly not synonymous, according to the commentator Cassuto, the way these two verbs are presented here, creates a closeness one to the other. He therefore tried to reconcile these two passages, which he deemed to be redundant if not explained in some other way. Cassuto therefore attached to “ev'yon” (here) a meaning other than "needy", and connected it to the word “oyev” - “enemy” - thus making this a prohibition corresponding to the two preceding admonitions (verses 4 and 5), that is, to meting out justice to the enemy.[5]

"And you shall sow your land six years, and you shall gather its produce. And the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow" (v.10). After the seventh year release of the slaves, we encounter again a ‘seventh year’ principle, this time regarding the land. "Let it rest and lie fallow" is designated by two verbs, “shamot” and “natosh”, the first meaning to “let go" and the other to “forsake". This "letting go" and "forsaking" of the land and of its husbandry, is designed so that "the needy of your people shall eat. [Whatever] they leave behind, the animals of the field shall eat. So you shall do to your vineyard, and to your olive grove" (v. 11). A similar theme is seen in the following verse, which speaks of seven days of labor, and of a seventh day in which "you shall rest, so that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your slave-girl and your alien may be refreshed." It is significant that the care of the poor, slaves and livestock is related to "resting" and "letting go", all of which point to trust, faith and reliance on YHVH, and thus we also read in T’hilim (Psalms) 46:10 (literal translation): “Let go and know that I am Elohim”.

In 23:19 we encounter 10 words (5 in Hebrew) upon which rest most of the elaborate Jewish dietary laws: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk". It follows, "You shall bring the first of the fruit of your soil to the house of YHVH your Elohim". The word used for "boil" (“bashel” -, bet.shin.lamed) or "cook", also means "ripe" (e.g. Joel 3:13). Could this be a reminder, therefore, not to let the kid become too mature before offering it up to YHVH, especially if the context of the entire verse is taken into consideration, along with 22:30 (where there mention is made to bring to YHVH the firstlings of the sheep on the eighth day)?

Unlike the “ten words” (i.e. the ‘ten commandements’), which start out with the establishment of Elohim’s presence and relationship with His people, move on to the Shabbat, being a link between heaven and earth, as it were, through to the nucleus family and then to the community (Ex. 20), here it is the individual (and a slave at that), who is mentioned first. Social matters and litigations, first within the family and then in the community follow (in the course of chapters 21,22 and some of 23). The seventh year rest and the seventh day’s rest (the Shabbat, in 23:10-12) again abridge earthly matters with those pertaining to YHVH: “And in all that I have said unto you be circumspect: and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth. Three times you shall keep a feast unto Me in the year” (23:13,14 emphases added). There is, therefore, symmetry of opposite order between the two texts of YHVH’s guidelines to His people, namely the summarized version (the ‘Ten Words’), and the elaborated “mishpatim”.

According to the above-examination of the term “mishpatim”, translated “judgments”, it is not to be defined strictly by the letter of the law, but more broadly as YHVH’s just arbitrations, which are to become standard and customary within the redeemed community of Yisrael (the italicized terms are all redenered "mishpat" or "mishpatim" in Hebrew). As a provision for making this lifestyle feasible, we read: “Behold, I send an Angel before you, to keep you on the way and to bring you to a place which I have prepared” (23:20 ff). Thus protection is already provided; the destination has also been prepared. “If you obey his voice and do as I say…” tells us that the Angel’s voice and YHVH’s are synonymous. “And I will be an enemy to your enemies and I will be an adversary to your adversaries”. In the Hebrew, “I will be an enemy”- “ve’a’ya’vti (le’oy’vecha”- “to your enemies”) appears here in verb form (to be found nowhere else in the Hebrew bible), as it does too with “I will be an adversary” - “ve’tza’rar'ti (le’tza’re’cha” – “to your adversaries”). The usage of the verb form (and especially in the case where a verb is literally made up for the purpose of conveying this idea) underscores YHVH’s total identity with His People. It illustrates more vividly His participation in their experiences. The presence of the Angel/messenger, in whom abides YHVH’s name, in their midst adds to the closeness that YHVH is establishing with Yisrael.

Leaving YHVH’s messenger, we continue on and climb to new heights, but not before the sprinkling of the atonement blood (24:6); an act in the course of which the “young men of Yisrael” offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings (v. 5), while the seventy elders, “went up… and saw the Elohim of Israel… and did eat and drink” (24:9,10,11). In this way the covenant is seen to encompass the people as a whole; from the young men at the foot of the mountain (the foundations), to the elders at the top and in close proximity to YHVH, with the sprinkling of the atonement blood being at the heart of the event and literally over the ‘body’ of the nation. The twelve pillars and the altar, in 24:4, provide a graphic and physical illustration, again, of the total inclusion of every member of the household of Yisrael. In addition, in Hebrew the word for “pillars” is actually conveyed here in singular form, thus adding a unifying factor to the all-inclusive nature of the covenant. The scene climaxes with Moshe being ‘swallowed up’ in YHVH’s glory, where he abides for forty days (24:18).

YHVH summoned Moshe to come up to the Mountain, as he was about to be given “the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandment which [YHVH] has written to teach them" (v. 12). The word for "teach them" is “(le)horotam”, of the root y.r.h.- meaning to “shoot" or to “fling" and by implication to “teach". It is the very same root of the word Torah. Thus, this one verse makes quite clear the connection of Torah to "teaching". Here we see again, as we observed in the beginning that "the Torah is anything but a strictly official and legal codex”.

[1] New Studies in Shmot Part 2, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

[2] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New Studies

[5] Ibid.