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Torah Sparks

February 18, 2012 – 25 Shevat 5772

Annual: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 (Etz Hayim p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Exodus 22:4 – 23:19 (Etz Hayim p. 465; Hertz p. 311)
Maftir: Exodus 30:11 – 16 (Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Haftarah: II Kings 12:1 – 17 (Etz Hayim p. 1277; Hertz p. 993)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Parashat Mishpatim offers valuable insight into the development of Jewish law. It is the source of 53 of the 613 commandments, specifying 23 affirmative, prescriptive mitzvot and 30 prohibitions.

More important to the evolution of Jewish law is the placement of Parashat Mishpatim immediately after the revelation at Sinai and the Ten Commandments. The decalogue’s general statements were insufficient for the regulation and sanctification of daily Israelite life. 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 how to treat Hebrew servants; the distinction between premeditated murder and other homicides; the 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 and of 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; laws concerning witnesses and the judiciary; a warning not to support 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.

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, and its boundaries 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 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: “Alien Nation”

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

Derash: Study

“It would be forgivable if we permitted ourselves the solace of dwelling on our victimization as slaves in Egypt. But instead we celebrate it, reshape it into the most frequently repeated explanation for any law in the entire Torah – over and over again. Our slavery, instead of embittering us, generates an obligation to identify with anyone who is socially powerless or politically disenfranchised.” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)

“Not once but twice does our parashah warn us against abusing the vulnerable non-Israelite in our midst, and each time the admonition is anchored in the past. History clearly impacts here on the spirit and contours of halakhah. The bitter taste of slavery honed Israel’s moral sense.” (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

“When we let God into ourselves we open our hearts to a world where we see others made like us in the common image of Divinity. The ancient Jews were told by their lawgiver Moses to remember the stranger; this was a challenge to them to build a future where nobody would be a stranger.” (Rabbi Charles E. Shulman)

“The stranger was to be protected, although he was not a member of one’s family, clan, religion, community, or people; simply because he was a human being. In the stranger, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.” (Hermann Cohen)

“Always give a word or sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, or even a stranger, if in a lonely place.” (Tecumseh)

Questions for Discussion

Have Jews overcome a collective sense of historic victimization, now celebrating that aspect of our past, as Rabbi Kushner asserts? Where have we succeeded in doing so and where have we failed? Is it desirable to identify with anyone – and everyone – who is powerless and politically disenfranchised, regardless of the reasons for their marginalization and regardless of their values and perspective?

Where else does historical experience and biblical narrative impact the spirit and contours of halakhah (See Chancellor Schorsch’s comment)?

In very pragmatic terms, how do we fulfill the mandate of this verse? How, for example, do we personally respond when a stranger joins our congregation for a Shabbat service or a weekday minyan. How do we bring a Jewish perspective to our daily interactions with strangers in the public sphere, beyond merely refraining from “wronging” or “oppressing” them?! What more does this verse of the Torah demand of us? What would Tecumseh (1768-1813; Native American leader of the Shawnee and a large tribal confederation) say?

What was your most positive (and most negative) personal experience of being a stranger? What did you learn from the experience?

Theme #2: “Sapphire So Good”

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.” (Exodus 24:9-10)

Derash: Study

“‘Like the very sky for purity.’ Rather as Onkelos translates, ‘Like a vision of the sky for brightness.’ Once they were redeemed, there was light and joy before him.” (Rashi)

“The language is circumspect. There is no description of God Himself, only of the celestial setting beneath the visionary heavenly throne. Even so, the Hebrew particle k- is used in order to indicate mere similarity and approximation.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

“The vision recorded in these verses departs in many ways from other biblical apprehensions of the Divine: God is not hidden; there is neither cloud nor smoke; Moses is in no wise distinguished from those who accompany him; and, further, the setting appears bereft of the covenantal framework.” (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

“Vision looks inward and becomes duty. Vision looks outward and becomes aspiration. Vision looks upward and becomes faith.” (Rabbi Stephen S. Wise)

“Vision is the ability to see God’s presence, to perceive God’s power, to focus on God’s plan in spite of the obstacles.” (Rev. Charles R. Swindoll)

Questions for Discussion

What does it mean to “see” God? When has your “vision” been the clearest? In whose company?

Given the “circumspect” language of our verses, does this passage record one of the most or one of the least explicit experiences of the Divine?

Onkelos’ translation, cited by Rashi, introduces an emotional/psychological element into the Israelite leaders’ experience of God: having been freed from slavery, they could now more fully experience joy and, indeed, more fully experience the presence of God. Where else in the Exodus narrative can we find evidence of this emotional transformation?

Rabbi Plaut points out the democratic nature of this revelatory moment. The anonymous elders and Moses share access to and experience of God on equal footing. How is this a model for the congregational framework? What do you make of the absence of a covenantal framework in this setting?

Imagine Rabbi Wise and Rev. Swindoll in conversation. Do they share a view of the meaning of “vision”? How do their definitions reflect their backgrounds? (Wise was an early 20th Century Reform leader; Swindoll is an evangelical Christian.)

Historic Note

Parashat Mishpatim, read on February 18, 2012, opens with ten laws about the treatment of slaves (More follow later in the parashah). The volume and prominence of these laws shows the special sensitivity required of the Israelites – themselves recently emancipated slaves – toward those now in their service. On February 18, 1688, Quakers conducted North America’s first formal protest against the institution of slavery, in Germantown, Pennsylvania.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Among the 53 mitzvot recorded in Parashat Mishpatim is the commandment to restore lost property – hashavat aveidah – based on Exodus 23:4. This religious and moral mandate was expanded by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) to include an obligation to the duty to intervene in life-threatening situations. Rabbi J. David Bleich summarizes: “Every individual, insofar as he is able, is obligated to restore the health of a fellow man no less than he is obligated to return his property.” The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has applied this principle to postmortem organ donation: “The preservation of human life is obligatory, not optional. Withholding consent for postmortem organ and tissue donation when needed for lifesaving transplant procedures is prohibited by Jewish law.”

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