Parshat Mishpatim-Shekalim

Summary: Parshat Mishpatim is the 6th in the Book of Exodus, spanning chapters 21:1-24:18. Following in close proximity the Revelation at Sinai of the 10 Commandments, it includes details of 52 mostly societal laws.

Among them (and in order) are laws pertaining to; Hebrew slaves, murder & manslaughter, bodily damage, tort damages from animals to humans or animals to animals, theft of cattle or sheep, negligence with fire or pit, responsibility as a watchman, borrower or renter, penalties for seduction, not oppressing the stranger and the prohibition against taking interest.

The next section includes laws about; not cursing G-d or perverting justice, returning your enemy’s animal and helping when it collapses under its burden, avoiding taking bribes, observing the Sabbatical year of the land, Shabbat and Festivals, bringing first fruits and not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.

The reward for following the commands was G-d’s protection from your enemies, the removal of all hardship, and inheritance of the land of Canaan. The people mustn’t worship local gods.

Mishpatim ends with Moshe & Aharon, Nadav & Avihu and the 70 Elders approaching the mountain. Moshe taught the people who responded in unison ‘we will do’.

Moshe then wrote down all of G-d’s words and arose early the next morning to build an altar with 12 pillars (one for each of the tribes). He sent young lads to offer sacrifices collecting half the blood in basins and the other half to throw on the altar. Then he read the Book of the Covenant to Bnei Yisrael who this time replied ‘we will do and we will listen.’ Moshe sprinkled blood on the people as a covenant between them and G-d.

Finally, Moshe and his entourage ascended the mountain part-way where they saw a vision of the Almighty like ‘smooth sapphire as clear as the heavens’. G-d told Moshe to ascend to the top of the mountain where he would receive the tablets of stone on which the Torah and Mitsvot were written. Moshe took Joshua with him, instructing the Elders to remain behind, leaving Aharon & Hur in charge until his return.

Moshe alone ascended toward the mountain covered in cloud. The glory of G-d dwelt on the mountain for 6 days and from amidst the cloud on the 7th day G-d called out to Moshe. It appeared like a fire consuming the top of the mountain in the eyes of the people. Moshe entered the cloud, ascended the mountain and remained there for 40 days and 40 nights.

Comment: It has been many years since we had a newspaper delivered to our door. Instead, the morning news arrives either by radio or via the Internet. It is hard to resist scanning the 25-30 headline features on at the start of the day. Some are actually interesting, most are designed just to titillate. These past few days attention was grabbed by the Easy-Jet Haredi scandal and the IS Suicide Bomber allegedly paid £1 million to blow himself up in Iraq.

Special algorithms are used by Internet providers to note what we click on and provide us more of the same. After a period, the news we receive begins to conform narrowly to our personal interests. If we’re not careful, our inputs eventually may consist only of that which agrees with us.

Mishpatim begins with a discussion of the rights of the Hebrew slave, male and female. ‘Should you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall work for you 6 years and be set free in the seventh.’ And ‘Should a man sell his daughter into servitude, she mustn’t be treated like an ordinary slave.’ (Exodus 21;2,7).

Slavery was a system in which laws of property were applied to human beings, allowing some individuals to own, buy or sell others. Often the slave had no say in the matter, couldn’t regain his/her freedom, and worked without being compensated for their productivity. Worse, owners were often physically abusive to their slaves. More loosely defined, slavery was about forcing someone to do things they didn’t want to.

Though slavery goes back nearly to the beginning of time, it was outlawed in the last century and is now recognised by human rights organisations and international courts as illegal. Yet, according to Wikipedia, there are nearly 45 million people in the world still enslaved. Known as human trafficking, many are confined through relationships of forced marriage, domestic servitude, child soldiering and debt bondage.

Some question the ongoing relevance of the Torah, due to its seeming acceptance of slavery. Others defend the Torah for its ancient wisdom and innovative stance that all humans are created in the Divine image and thus entitled to freedom. A more accurate view would be that Judaism provides a foundation for morality and justice against a world that often lacks both.

From a philosophical viewpoint, the commandments are intended to help refine us into a nation of priests and a holy people. Within each of us lives a Divine soul surrounded by a physical body – the intent of each not always in harmony with the other. Our life-long struggle is to gain control over our lower impulses, raising ourselves up to a higher standard.

Adherence to laws such as how we treat our fellow human beings define what kind of people we become. So it’s important that we’re committed to defend the rights of all people to live as free human beings.

One element of being truly free includes self-control and an ability to observe ourselves objectively, moderating our behaviour when necessary. While not comparing the offensive bad manners of those who flew on Easy Jet to the deranged assassin detonating himself for money, we can point out that religious extremism often leads to losing that important sense of objectivity.

Too frequently we’re content to live a narrowly focused life, only seeing things which conform to our baser inclinations leading to a very closed-off world view. The Torah’s laws against slavery metaphorically remind us that servitude can occur in the mind as well as through the body and that we must be ever vigilant towards both.