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Torah Sparks

February 17, 2007 – 29 Shevat 5767

Annual: Ex. 21:1 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Ex. 23:20 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 474; Hertz p. 319)
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 Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Once they had received the Ten Commandments, the people still had to be given many legal details in order to have enough information to establish their community. While the Ten Commandments dealt with headline-worthy issues, our material for this morning is quite detail-oriented. Today’s Torah portion contains 53 of the 613 mitzvot, according to one of the widely accepted tabulations of the Torah’s commandments. The material covers a broad range of legal topics, from civil legislation to offenses against property to moral offenses. Within its verses, we find the groundwork for a Torah-based society, a groundwork expanded upon by the rabbis in the generations that followed. Near the end of our parashah, there is a ceremony for the ratification of the covenant, which is preceded by an exhortation about the Promised Land.

Issue #1: An Eye for an Eye

A person who injures another person is required to do a great deal more than simply say “I’m sorry.” In the words of the Torah portion:

eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21: 24-25)

On a surface level, this text appears to mandate a vengeful form of justice in which the penalty for injuring another person is that the injurer must suffer an identical injury.

We are not the first readers to ask ourselves whether a second injury in punishment serves any productive purpose. The rabbis of the Talmud – and virtually all of our traditional Jewish commentators – understand this passage to mean monetary compensation. Thus we may paraphrase the rabbinic interpretation of this verse to mean that the punishment for harming someone’s eye is to be financially responsible for the consequences of the damage.

This scenario may be more complex than it first seems. Other ancient civilizations had monetary restitution as part of their law codes. Unfortunately, in those civilizations the fine sometimes was a remedy available to the wealthy, who could pay money and be excused, but not for the poor, who had no money, and therefore were punished in harsher ways. The Torah may have been responding to inequity of this kind by stipulating a universal punishment for all offenders. But the rabbis found such a prescription to be nearly barbaric. They interpreted the statute in what they considered a more humane manner. More information on the history of such statutes may be found in the article “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law” by Moshe Greenberg. This monograph, originally published in 1960 in a book that long has been out of print, may be read in the volume Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought, published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1995.

Consider both the text of the Torah and the way in which it has been interpreted. Does one seem more just than the other? Does one system seem easier to mete out than the other? What issues could arise from doing exactly as the Torah says? Are all arms and legs of the same value? (If someone was a dancer or pianist, might that mean their arms or legs are more valuable than others?) Could this be a key to understanding the rabbis’ system?

Issue #2: Deferred Gratification

Following the distinctly legal material in parashat Mishpatim, we read the reassuring words of the covenant restated. God is telling the Israelites that He intends to bring them to the land of Canaan and to give it to them, sending away the peoples who had previously inhabited the land. However, this transition would not take place all at once. We are given a rationale for the gradual conquest of the land by the Israelites:

I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts of the field multiply to your detriment. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and [can] possess the land. (Exodus 23: 29-30)

Historically speaking, we tend to associate the conquest of Canaan with Joshua, shortly after the death of Moses. But it is clear in the opening chapters of the book of Judges that this was not the whole story. Chapter one of Judges paints a post-Joshua picture of Israelite life that hardly could be called peaceful. It may have taken a century or more before the Israelites solidly possessed the Promised Land in its entirety.

Clearly the gradual pattern of conquest must have been a disappointment to some of the Israelites. In what way does our text, chapter 23 verses 29-30, portray an advantage to this gradualism? Is there a relationship between this section and the decision to set the people Israel on a long path to the Promised Land, rather than a more direct one? When undertaking a major project, what are the benefits of moving quickly to completion? When might it be expedient to move more slowly through the process?

Issue #3: Fundraising

The special Maftir portion that is read this morning stipulates a universal contribution that was to be given by rich and poor alike:

The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel. (Exodus 30:15)

When should people of means be given the opportunity to give special gifts for communal projects, and when should people at all levels of wealth be treated as equals?

In Deuteronomy 16:16-17, we find the following commandment regarding observance of the holidays:

Three times a year — on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths — all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you.

How can these two different approaches be reconciled? Do these verses offer advice on setting fees for synagogue membership or programs? Is one approach to be preferred over the other?

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