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A Message from Rabbi Eligberg

A Tidbit of Torah – Parshat Mishpatim 5782

And these are the rules that you shall set before them:            Sh’mot / Exodus 21:1

Parshat Mishpatim presents as an eclectic and inchoate collection of laws, primarily what would be regarded as secular law dealing with torts, theft, damages, loans, murder, injury, and property. Many of these laws have equivalents in the legal traditions of other Ancient Near-Eastern societies. That these seemingly banal rules follow immediately upon the monumental experience of divine revelation at Sinai so vividly described in the previous chapters prompt generations of commentators to explore the reason for this juxtaposition.

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105), the pre-eminent, medieval, biblical commentator addresses this question by parsing the opening verse through the prism of several earlier midrashic interpretations, building blocks to an enduring and essential understanding of the significance of these laws and their placement.

Rashi’s first statement cites Midrash Tanchuma (ca. 5th century CE) which teaches that the formulation, “And these”, used to open our Torah portion, in contrast to other introductory verses which omit the “and”, indicates that these laws were given at Sinai just as the Decalogue previously recorded. The point, Rashi asserts, is to emphasize that the laws of Mishpatim, how we comport ourselves in society’s ordinary activity, are just as significant as those of the Decalogue. Rashi reflects a sustained effort in rabbinic literature to place the laws of Mishpatim firmly in the realm of the divine and holy.

Next, Rashi quotes the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (ca. 4th century CE), which notes the juxtaposition between the opening of our parasha (“And these are the laws”) and the ending of the previous parasha, Yitro which concludes with rules regarding the proper construction of an altar.

The Mekhilta states: To tell you that you shall place the Sanhedrin adjacent to the Temple [the altar]. The point of the court’s location is to teach that judges serving the needs of the people Israel are divine intermediaries just as the kohanim serving at the altar. Like the kohanim, judges must hold themselves to the highest standards of moral and ethical conduct, always aware of their being interpreters and exemplars of the divine word.

Rashi, quotes the Talmud’s (Eruvin 54b), observation that laws are generally “told” or “instructed but here the introductory verse uses the term “place” or “set out”.

The Holy One, said to Moses: Do not think, “I will teach them each chapter and law two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.” Therefore, it is said: “you shall set before them,” like a table (shulchan arukh), set [with food] and prepared to eat from, [placed] before someone.

Moses was to teach these laws, not as rote learning and behavioral habits but to present them in clear terms, making them comprehensible as an expression of divine expectations and thus eagerly digested and internalized by the people of Israel.

These laws, are not exclusively, perhaps not even primarily, about compliance, but about the religious experience of knowing how to behave properly and acting in accordance with the divine law, that all aspects of our lives can be elevated to sacred service to God

A Message From Cantor Marx

 

This week’s Torah portion Mishpatim contains many laws of social justice. Laws such as against taking advantage of a widow or orphan, or charging interest on a loan, against bribery and injustice, and so on. The first and last of these laws, however, is the repeated command against harming a ger, or a “stranger.”  Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)

What is the logic of this command? According to Nachmanides, a Spanish scholar and rabbi and Jewish religious leader, the command has two dimensions. The first is the relative powerlessness of the stranger. He or she is not surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, a community of those ready to come to their defense. Therefore, the Torah warns against wronging them because God has made Himself protector of those who have no one else to protect them. This is the political dimension of the command.

The second reason is the psychological vulnerability of the stranger. The stranger is one who lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone – and, throughout the Torah, God is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, the cry of the unheard. That is the emotional dimension of the command.

Some of our brothers and sisters might look down on those who are not Jewish. This commandment explicitly teaches us we should not feel superior to the ger, but instead to remember the misery our ancestors experienced in Egypt. It is a command concerning humility in the face of strangers. The Torah is clearly telling us these laws are important in defining what it means to be a Jew. A lesson so relevant in the world we live nowadays.

 

 


Fri, January 28 2022 26 Shevat 5782