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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT MISHPATIM - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 29, 2011 – 24 Shevat 5771

Annual: Ex. 21:1 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Ex. 21:1 – 22:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8 – 22; 33:25 – 26 (Etz Hayim, p. 482; Hertz p. 323)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

Parashat Mishpatim offers valuable insight into the development of Jewish law. First, it does so by serving as the source of 53 of the 613 commandments. This is a significant percentage, similar to the 55 mitzvot found in Parashat Re'eh. (For the record, Parashat Mishpatim specifies 23, affirmative prescriptive mitzvot and 20 prohibitions.)

More important to the evolution of Jewish law is the placement of Parashat Mishpatim immediately following the Sinai revelation and the Ten Commandments. The decalogue's general statements of piety and probity were insufficient for the regulation and sanctification of daily Israelite life. God was to be found in the details, and Parashat Mishpatim makes significant progress toward establishing a comprehensive and workable legal code for the newly founded "nation of priests." Many of the specific prescriptions fall under the broader categories established by the decalogue. The laws that give Parashat Mishpatim its name include rules on the treatment of Hebrew servants, the distinction between premeditated murder and other homicides, and treatment of parents; laws about kidnapping and about an injury inflicted on a pregnant woman that causes her to miscarry; the legal ramifications of personal injury and damages, including an ox that gores; the responsibilities of those entrusted with safeguarding property; sexual morality, a stringent approach to witchcraft; the fundamental principle of our obligations to strangers, widows, and orphans; proper conduct in the matter of loans and securities; the prohibition against cursing (or speaking ill of) judges and political leaders; tithes; the sanctity of firstborn sons and animals; the prohibition against eating carrion; the admonition to keep far from falsehood; laws concerning witnesses and the judiciary; a warning not to align yourself with the majority in a perversion of justice; the commandments to restore lost property and assist in unburdening an animal in distress; injunctions about the sabbatical year and Shabbat; a prohibition against mentioning the names of foreign gods; observance of the Pilgrimage festivals; regulations about the paschal offering and the first fruits; and the prohibition, given three times in the Torah, against boiling a kid in its mother's milk (given here in the context of festival observances, and not until Deuteronomy relocated among the dietary laws).

God reassures Israel of His providential care and his designation of angelic protection. Israel is to receive God's manifold blessings in exchange for fealty to the covenant. Israel will conquer the land it has been promised, the boundaries of which are detailed. Israel is warned not to enter into covenants either with the indigenous peoples of Canaan or with the gods they worship The Israelite people unanimously ratify the covenant with the famous affirmation Na'aseh v'nishma – "All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!" (or "We will do and obey"). The traditional understanding of this phrase is na'aseh – first we will do God's will, and eventually nishma – we will come to understand its meaning. This implies both unconditional obedience and the faith that meaning and inspiration will be forthcoming. The parashah concludes with Moses and the leaders of Israel seeing God beautifully and graphically manifested on a pure, sapphire-like surface. Moses alone communes with God for forty days and nights, receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Theme #1: "Wholly Holy"

"You shall be holy people to Me." (Exodus 22:30)

Derash: Study

"You shall be holy, but as human beings. You are to sanctify your human conduct, for that is the main holiness required of man. The Lord of the Universe has no lack of angels in heaven." (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

"'You shall be men holy unto me' – 'Men holy' means persons constantly aware of their relationship to God. Holiness is understood to be not only a moral outlook but a total lifestyle." (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut)

"Holiness is every man's privilege. This democracy of holiness is one of the most magnificent creations of the Jewish religious genius." Rabbi David de Sola Pool "Man cannot be good unless he strives to be holy." Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel "Perfection does not consist in any singular state or condition of life, or in any particular set of duties, but in holy and religious conduct of ourselves in every state of life." (William Law)

"Holy men? Holy cabbages! Holy bean-pods! What do they do but live and suck in sustenance and grow fat? If that be holiness, I could show you hogs in this forest that are fit to head the calendar. Think you it was for such a life that this good arm was fixed upon my shoulder, or that head placed upon your neck? There is work in the world, man, and it is not by hiding behind stone walls that we should do it." (Arthur Conan Doyle)

Questions for Discussion:

In the Jewish worldview, the "democracy of holiness" means that holiness is not the exclusive domain of a priestly elite or clerical caste. It is the goal and responsibility of every member of the Jewish community. Is this a unifying, bonding principle, or does this ingenious system have the inadvertent consequence of fomenting internal tension and self-righteousness, when some Jews inevitably embrace the challenge of holiness more willingly and visibly than others?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle colorfully assails the monastic life – holiness sought at a remove from human society and interaction, away from essential "work" to be done in the world. What works and causes do we consider indispensable to attaining true holiness? How are we to balance such holy projects with our own personal spiritual development, religious practice, and sacred learning? Must a congregation (or a person, for that matter) be invested in every cause that arises, in relief efforts for every natural disaster and activism for every worthy social cause? Or is it acceptable to involve yourself deeply and exclusively in just one or a limited number of such campaigns?

What are some examples of Jewish tradition's uniquely "human" approach to holiness, as expressed by the Kotzker rebbe? How does the sanctification of human conduct differ from a more transcendent approach to holiness: asceticism, monasticism, religious orders? Are there examples of such orders and religious communities in Jewish history? What is their legacy?

Is Heschel correct – Must we strive for holiness to be truly good? Are there historic or current examples that support his claim? Is human goodness a possibility for the secularist or atheist?

Rabbi Plaut defines holiness in terms of both a person's conduct and that person's "relationship to God." What does it mean to have such a relationship? Is it a confident belief in God? Is it a lifelong struggle to maintain or to define such a belief? Is it adherence to a certain set of theological principles? A vivid sense of God's presence in the course of our lives? How would you describe your relationship with God?

Theme #2: "The Truth, the Holy Truth, and Nothing but the Truth"

"Keep far from a false matter..." (Exodus 23:7)

Derash: Study

"Habitual liars have an inclination to idol worship and heresy, for truth and faith embrace one another." (Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz)

"If people only knew how great was the power of truth, they would never lie." (Rabbi Abraham Aybush of Frankfurt am Main)

"Do not take matters as proven because they are stated so in books. Lies are committed with the mouth as well as with the pen. Only fools will consider a matter truly proven simply because they find it in writing." (Maimonides, Iggeret Teiman)

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." (Winston Churchill)

"An excuse is worse and more terrible than a lie, for an excuse is a lie guarded." (Pope John Paul II)

"A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies." (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

"By a lie, a man ... annihilates his dignity as a man." (Immanuel Kant)

Questions for Discussion:

The Torah's official stance values truth and eschews deception and dissimulation. How does this contrast with the many cases of lying to be found throughout scripture? Abraham lies with impunity about his relationship with Sarah, Sarah lies about her reaction to the news that she will conceive, as a military stratagem Jacob's sons lie about their intention to ally Israel with Shechem, and so on.

How does Rabbi Pinchas' view of the heretical nature of lying, and the close relationship between faith and truth, relate to the Conservative movement's principled critical approach to the study of sacred text? Is any tool intended to uncover the truth a sacred effort?

Are there truths that integrity demands not be revealed? Is a lie (or silence) at times a more admirable, even more Godly course? Or is truth an absolute value?

How is our human dignity tied to our truthfulness?

How do excuses differ from lies, and in Pope John Paul II's estimation both encompass lies and exceed theme in moral gravity?

Rabbi Abraham and Winston Churchill reflect on the relative power of truth and lies, respectively. Are their insights mutually exclusive? Whose perspective is more correct? More compelling? More truthful?

Historic Note

Parashat Mishpatim, read on January 29, 2010, includes a great deal of material on governmental and the judicial administration and enacts a prohibition against cursing or maligning judges and national leaders. On January 29, 1808, Ezekiel Hart, the first Jew to be elected to the Canadian parliament, was denied his seat because he refused to take the Christian oath of office.

Halachah L'maaseh

The parashah's prohibition against "cursing" or disparaging judges and national political leaders is a difficult challenge, much observed in the breach, especially during election cycles! Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv) observes that as a matter of course the public looks for flaws in people who are in positions of leadership and he goes on to criticize them on that account: "People have the tendency to try to bring down any leader who fails to satisfy their own interests, hence this law." Verbal attacks and disparagement of government officials have the potential, this mitzvah teaches, to undermine the very fabric of civil society, and ultimately our respect for all authority, including the authority of God. It is for this reason, many of the commentators agree, that the ambiguous term here used for judges – "Elohim" – is also used in reference to the Divine. The centrality of this halakhic obligation is underscored by the Mesorah's observation that its Biblical source, Exodus 22:28, is the middle verse in the Book of Exodus."


 
 
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