Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

14 Mar
March 14, 2013

Last week in the Torah we experienced what appeared to be the single most powerful moment of revelation in all of Jewish history – the giving of the Torah itself on Mt. Sinai. For the past 3,000 years we have turned to that moment and those remarkable “Ten Utterances” (aseret Hadibrot in Hebrew) for the very foundation of Jewish ethics and morality. In fact, we have talked about, written about and focussed on those ten commandments so much over the thousands of years since that transforming event, that most people have been lulled into believing that the really important part of Jewish ethics itself consists primarily in the keeping of those famous ten.

Perhaps that is why our wise ancestors followed the giving of the Ten Commandments immediately with this week’s Torah portion – Mishpatim. For no sooner have we had our eyes popped open wide by the shaking of the mountain, the sparks and lightening and thunder that was so unearthly that the Torah claims that the children of Israel “heard the lightening and saw the thunder,” accompanying the giving of the commandments, then we are surprised by the opening lines of the Torah this week that claim, “These are the rules which you shall set before them…”

If we already got the terrible ten, what rules are we getting now? In fact, just to prove to us all that the original ten were really a kind of preamble to the rules that really matter, following the declaration that “These are the rules.” God gives us FIFTY MORE in this week’s portion alone! Fifty more. From rules about slavery and freedom to laws outlining the crimes that justify capital punishment to rules governing property rights to the famous lex talionis “an eye for an eye” to laws of civil liability, property and moral behavior – a breathtaking array of social, civil and criminal legislation is laid out as the blueprint for this new spiritual society of the Jewish people.

It’s almost as if the Ten Commandments were a set up – first we get the ten and think, “OK, ten commandments – seems pretty basic, sort of social common sense – I can do that.” And then once we have opened our minds to the very idea of being commanded in the first place, “wham,” we get the rest of the story, fifty more powerful moral and ethical obligations, and by now it is collectively too late to back out – we are already committed.

This is a Torah portion whose profound, sophisticated ethical expectations and social responsibility has reverberated throughout history to this very day. It is worth taking the time this Shabbat or during the week ahead, to read every word. You can’t help but be impressed by the wisdom of our ancestors, the insight into the human psyche that they reflected in these rules, and statutes and ordinances from so many thousands of years ago.

For example, one of the most powerful yet complex ethical challenges in the entire portion is found in the deceptively simple phrase, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil.” (Exodus 23:2). After all, think of how many times in your life you simply followed the majority, because that’s what “everyone” was doing, or saying, or wearing. The insidious power of peer pressure, to conform, to be accepted, to be liked, to be part of the group is one of the single most destructive forces against morality in the world.

Sometimes it’s as simple as standing by and letting someone disparage another or an entire ethnic group because we aren’t willing to risk the rejection that might follow any personal expressions of condemnation. Our loyalties and priorities in life are so often twisted by our emotional needs for friendship and love, that we suppress our own best instincts in the misguided search for approval.

It takes moral courage to stand up to the crowd – any crowd. But this is exactly what our Torah portion demands of us this week. “Do not follow a multitude to do evil,” it says, followed shortly by the reminder that because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we will always know the heart of the stranger. More often than any other single commandment, a full thirty-six times in the Torah, we are reminded that we were strangers in Egypt and commanded to treat the stranger in our midst as the home born. We are to remember that all of us are strangers, that all of us are merely sojourners on this earth, and that all of us are ultimately responsible for one another.

Indeed, “These are the rules,” all fifty of them, that matter today with as much urgency, inspiration and power as when they were first uttered three thousand years ago.

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