Parshat Mishpatim 2019
Mount Sinai as a picnic ground. Sounds as far-fetched as the big Tel Aviv garbage dump being turned into a beautiful park. But there they are: Ariel Sharon Park where the smelly hiriya used to be and a picnic on Mount Sinai. It’s written in our parsha, black on white, Moshe is invited to “ascend to God” with his brother Aaron, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu, and the 70 elders of Israel. They do and, the Torah tells us, they “saw the God of Israel; under God’s feet there was the very likeness of sapphire brickwork, like the very sky for purity… they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”
This is both amazing and at the same time totally antithetical to what is written three parshot hence – “Man cannot see Me and live.” They saw God, they even had a picnic on Mount Sinai, with God as the benevolent overseer! Is this not the ultimate personal religious experience (as opposed to the communal religious experience we read last week)?
It is and it isn’t. Moshe is then commanded to ascend the mountain, himself, to meet with God and receive instruction in all the laws of the Torah. The elders are instructed to sit tight. Thus, this picnic scenario is actually a midpoint experience: greater and more revealing than the group revelation, but of lesser impact or importance than Moshe’s trek up the mountain.
The ten commandments, the overarching, inclusive laws that we can call “general policy,” were revealed by God himself, publically. Today’s parsha is filled with the minutiae that take up much of daily life as we try to implement the general policy. What to do if… How to respond to x y z. It seems like a hodgepodge, which may actually be the message: No one law is more or less important than the others. Slavery. Murder. Honoring or dishonoring parents. Goring oxen. Leaving open pits in the public domain. Responsibility for stolen or broken goods. How to treat strangers, converts, widows and orphans. Money lending. Holidays. The list goes on.
Many lessons can be learned from such a mitzvah-rich parsha. Overall, we can say that society requires specific parameters in which to function, and the more specific they are, the easier it is to determine what is acceptable and what is not. In today’s post- and post-post modernism world, that is not a very popular notion.
One relevant lesson we can learn from the parsha is that differences of opinion, even enmity, cannot and should not negate or override the norms of civility and fairness, which must be maintained. Two cases, in two sequential commandments, illustrate this point.
If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering around – return it to him. And then: if you see your enemy’s donkey collapsing under its burden, help your enemy to remove the burden from the animal.
Despite similarities, the two commandments present two different situations which means that they are meant to transmit different messages. Rabbi Shimon Klein explains them in this way.
The first law – returning a lost animal – indicates that certain basic social norms cannot be ignored, even when they pertain to your enemy (someone you don’t get along with). You cannot just walk away or keep or sell the animal. The basis for social survival is reciprocity, even if you can’t stand the other person. Reading it we see that both an ox and a donkey (or ass) are named because they serve different purposes. The ox is a work animal, for plowing fields or turning millstones. It’s necessary for basic survival. The second is a beast of burden which enables its owner to communicate and to send goods and services to the outside. In certain circumstances this could mean giving the animal’s owner one up on the finder!
The second law, helping to unburden the animal, is a different story, according to Rabbi Klein. You see the animal from a distance and you see that the person you dislike is with that animal. Your first thought might be to ignore them. But no, you have to help that despised person to lighten the animal’s load. This is both for the sake of the animal and for the owner.
The two commandments differ in several ways. One is in the quality of reciprocal responsibility. In the first case, one person loses an animal, the second one finds it, and then returns it. The finder is in locus parentis for the animal, taking care of it until he can return it to the owner.
The second case involves a different type of responsibility. The passer-by does not take the place of the owner. Instead, he must work together with the owner (which involves talk and action) to relieve the animal’s load.
Rabbi Klein summarizes the differences in this way. In the first case, responsibility requires more abstract morality but less personal contact. You see. You catch. You return. Finished. In the second, responsibility is much more immediate and personal with much more communication and cooperation. You see. You work in tandem with and then you are finished.
Both types of responsibility are important. Both help to build trust. Both are necessary, especially in times of stress or danger. Both seem to be in dangerously short supply in certain places and in certain professions, especially politics. Reasserting such responsibility should be a national priority.