PARASHAT MISHPATIM - BIRKAT HAHODESH - SHABBAT SHEKALIM
February 25, 2006 - 27 Shevat 5766
Annual: Ex. 21:1 - 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Ex. 22:4 - 23:19 (Etz Hayim, p. 464; Hertz p. 311)
Maftir: Ex. 30:11 - 16 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Haftarah: II Kings 12:1 - 17 (Etz Hayim, p. 1276; Hertz p. 992)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
Some people say that God is in the details. That idea certainly fits with this week's portion. We move from the broad moral and religious issues discussed in the Ten Commandments to the day-to-day details of living life under the covenant. This week's parasha contains a long list of civil and religious laws and therefore is often called the Book of the Covenant.
The portion begins with the laws governing a Hebrew slave, who will work for six years and go free in the seventh. If he refuses his freedom, a hole is to be bored into his ear. This parasha also contains the law that a man may not withhold food, clothing, or sexual rights from his wife. It continues with a number of laws about damages, including the well-known rule "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," which Jewish law interprets as paying damages. It also contains the laws about damages caused by an ox that gores, and considers whether the ox has a history of goring.
The portion contains laws about theft, and draws a distinction between the theft done at night or during the day. The night thief is considered to pose a threat to a homeowner and deadly force can be used. The portion continues with the laws of bailment, which involve a person's property being damaged or destroyed while in someone else's possession. This portion includes many laws regulating the treatment of the poor, widows, and orphans.
It ends with a reaffirmation of the covenant, including the statement "We will do and we will understand." In the end, the elders "see" a vision of God; there seems to be sapphire stones under God's feet. Moses goes back up onto the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
Issue #1 - The Worst Form of Theft
"If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep" (Exodus 21:37)
- If a thief steals an inanimate object and is caught, he must pay back double. Theft becomes a civil rather than a criminal matter, as it is in our society. The punishment is more severe, however, if the thief steals an ox or a sheep. Why?
- Could the reason be linked to the nature of society? When the Torah was written, the majority of Israelites were shepherds. Therefore, to lose a sheep was to lose much more than just property; it was to lose a livelihood. Could the fine be higher because the thief literally has stolen the victim's ability to make a living? Why would stealing the ability to earn a living be worse than taking things? What does this say about the Torah's attitude toward earning a living? What would be modern equivalents of stealing a shepherd's sheep?
- The Torah forbids stealing a neighbor's landmark. The rabbis understand this situation as another way to steal his or her livelihood. How do they come to this interpretation? Does this law speak to the issue of fair competition? Is it right for a person to open a business that undercuts another's ability to earn a living? This ancient issue is not easy to resolve; it is still alive today. If a large chain discount store opens in a community, and that forces small mom-and-pop shops out of business, is that stealing a neighbor's landmark? What if such stores are bad for its competition but good for consumers?
- If taking away a person's ability to earn a living is the lowest form of stealing, does that relate to what should be the highest form of giving? Of course, Maimonides taught the highest of the eight levels of tzedakah he outlined is setting up a person up in business so he or she could earn a living.
Issue #2 - Abortion
"If men quarrel, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no further harm follows; he shall be surely punished, according to what the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine" (Exodus 21:22)
- Dare we talk about the most controversial social and political issue in our country?
- Is abortion murder? According to the verse quoted above, if a man causes a woman to miscarry through his negligence, he must pay a fine. Yet a fine is never allowed in the case of murder. (See Numbers 35:31) From this portion, we see that causing the death of an unborn child is not considered murder according to the Torah's laws. Could even the most ardent pro-life advocate really equate abortion with killing an adult, even when the Bible indicates otherwise?
- Is abortion a mere medical procedure? The Talmud teaches that for the first 40 days, the developing embryo is "mere fluid" (Yebamot 69a). After 40 days, the fetus is more than mere fluid; it has some legal standing. An abortion during this period has profound consequences in Jewish law. For example, if a woman aborts a fetus after formation and later gives birth to a baby boy, there is no pidyon haben, the celebration traditionally reserved for the firstborn. Why? Clearly, the rabbis understand that there is more involved than "mere fluid."
- Does Judaism point toward a middle way regarding abortion? Could such a middle way have some bearing in a society that is debating this difficult issue?