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Torah Sparks

Parashat Mishpatim (Shabbat Shekalim)
February 9, 2013 – 29 Shevat 5773

Annual: Exodus 21:1-24:18 (Etz Hayim p. 456; Hertz p. 306)
Triennial: Exodus 23:20-24:18 (Etz Hayim p. 474; Hertz p. 219)
Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16 (Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Haftarah (A): 2 Kings 12:1-17 (Etz Hayim p. 1278; Hertz p. 993)
Haftarah (S): 2 Kings 11:17-12:17 (Etz Hayim p. 1277; Hertz p. 992)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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.

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; the legal ramifications of personal injury and damages and of sexual morality; the fundamental principle of our obligations to strangers, widows, and orphans; proper 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; 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: “For, oh, they cannot bear to see their father weep!”

“He who insults his father or mother shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17)

Derash: Study

“Insulting one’s parents is punished more severely than striking them (see verse 15), by stoning rather than strangulation, because insulting them is a much more widespread sin.” (Nachmanides)

“The verse applies whether or not the parent who is insulted is still alive.” (Ibn Ezra)

The Sages were sitting, and one came and asked: ‘If a son strikes his father after his death – he is exempt from all liability; yet if he curses him – he is legally responsible. If the father dies and his son wounds him causing bleeding – why is he not liable? What is the distinction between these two laws? If it is in order to dishonor him that he curses him, it is also a dishonor for him to strike him after his death!’ They answered: ‘For the power of the curse is that it wounds the father’s soul, that which a physical strike cannot…’” (Sefer Chasidim 571)

“No messing around with Western parenting styles here! If you physically harm your parents or treat them with contempt, you have written yourself out of the community and even, out of your life.” (Rabbi David Lerner)

“A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone.” (Rev. Billy Graham)

Ignoring a child’s disrespect is the surest guarantee that it will continue.” (Fred G. Gosman, How to Be a Happy Parent...In Spite of Your Children)

Questions for Discussion

What do you think is the intent of this draconian Biblical prescription? To express societal outrage at filial disrespect (see Rabbi Lerner)? To inculcate the general capacity for respect for others through the specific medium of the filial relationship (see Rev. Graham)? To stanch a widespread societal ill (a la Nachmanides)?

Is it true that words have a capacity to wound unequalled by physical blows? Isn’t physical abuse also harmful to the soul? Ibn Ezra’s comment reflects the insight that our relationship to parents transcends their lifetime. How else is this value expressed in Jewish life and practice?

The Hebrew term here translated as “to insult” might also accurately be rendered “to curse.” How does this change in nuance effect your understanding of the commandment? What are the parameters of appropriate communication with parents today? How do these parameters evolve as the “child” ages?

Theme #2: “Have you ever known what it is to be an orphan?”

“You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (Exodus 22:21-23)

Derash: Study

“I am quick to punish on account of the widow and orphan, more so than any other person, because a wife depends on her husband, a son depends on his father; but these, they have no one to depend on besides Me.” (Mekhilta)

“This applies to all people, only Scripture addresses that which is common, because they are feeble, and their mistreatment is a frequent occurrence.” (Rashi)

“One who witnesses the maltreatment of a widow or orphan and does nothing to protest, is guilty of this crime as well.” (Ibn Ezra)

“One is obliged to exercise great care with orphans and widows… even if they are wealthy, even a king’s widow and orphans – we are warned in regard to them. How are we to deal with them? One should speak with them only softly, and should treat them only honorably. And one may not inflict pain upon their bodies through hard labor, or in their hearts through harsh words. And one must care for their money more so than for one’s own.” (Rambam)

“Can anyone understand how it is to have lived in the White House and then, suddenly, to be living alone as the President's widow.” (Jacqueline Kennedy)

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” (Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address)

Questions for Discussion

Is the case of widows and orphans – and their demands on our comportment – unique… or do they merely serve as one example among many of the vulnerable and disadvantaged?

Ibn Ezra identifies a religious and moral obligation to speak out in response to mistreatment of the widow and orphan… or to stand guilty of complicity in their abuse. What other situations demand our proactive intervention?

The late Mrs. Kennedy’s comment illuminates Rambam’s discussion of the king’s widow. How might our verse be especially cogent in the case of such a wealthy and powerful individual?

The moving closing of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address demonstrates the impact of Hebrew Scripture on American society and governance. Where else in the development of democratic western culture (and especially among the American founding fathers) do we see this relationship?

Why is the harsh threat of divine retribution necessary to our verse? What does it add?

Historic Note

Parashat Mishpatim, read on February 9, 2013, represents a watershed in the evolution of Jewish Law, covering a variety of legal norms and topics, including detailed instructions regarding witnesses and the judiciary. On February 9, 1807, Napoleon convened the French Sanhedrin.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Exodus 23:13 records a prohibition regarding Jews making reference to the deities of non-Jews: “The name of other gods you shall not mention, it shall not be heard on your lips.” Codifying this restriction, the Shulchan Aruch imposes a seemingly sweeping prohibition: “One who takes a vow in the name of a foreign god receives lashes, and one cannot even mention it by name, with or without a reason” (Yoreh Deah 147:1). Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, explores the extent to which this prohibition applies to mentioning the Christian savior by name (pointing out that the Talmud itself does so!). He writes: “While exactly what constitutes a ‘divine name’ is unclear… certainly to say ‘Jesus’ would not be a problem, as this was his given name… The more important question is whether one can use the second half of that name, a name which – while literally translating as ‘anointed’ or ‘messiah’, is a name which was given to denote his divine status. This would seem clearly prohibited, and I will not say this name. I have no problem saying ‘Christmas’ or ‘Christians’ however, as this does not refer to the being identified as a part of the Godhead… We live in and, in many ways, embrace the values of a tolerant and pluralistic society. We believe that we should be respectful of other religions and faiths and their adherents. But in so doing, we run the risk of sliding from tolerance to pluralism to relativism. If differences are minimized, if there is no absolute truth, if everything is just a choice or preference, then our own convictions, our own faith, our emunah, is made void and meaningless… It is particularly in an open society such as ours that we must work to sustain a sense of taboo in using language that implicitly assigns a divine status to a human being.” (See also BT Chullin 2B, Sanhedrin 63B, 68A, Avodah Zarah 8A.)

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