Parshat Mishpatim-Shekalim 2018
Why does our parsha, Mishpatim, with its 53 mitzvot – most of them dealing with civil law and social matters – appear right after the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah on Mount Sinai? Wouldn’t it have been more logical to jump right into the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, to hold the stone tablets received on Mount Sinai? After all, that’s the subject of next week’s parsha, Terumah. In other words, what is the message that we are supposed to get from the juxtaposition of the Ten Commandments and Mishpatim?
In one of the daily emails I get, on Sunday I received the following quote: “True religion is the life we lead, not the creed we profess.” Louis Nizer, the lawyer, wrote these words. The placement of the Ten Commandments and Mishpatim together is the theoretical application of this maxim.
The Ten Commandments are awe-inspiring. They are absolute values that we can profess to follow – and still be rotten or at the very least unscrupulous human beings. We will not murder but we will extort money to reward us for not murdering. We will not steal but we will cheat certain people because they are not “one of us” or we see them as unworthy of our honesty. We will honor our father and mother by getting them into the best gated community in the city but we won’t visit them very much.
Before we jump from one spiritual high (whether real or imagined) to another spiritual endeavor – building the Tabernacle, our parsha comes to anchor our feet on the ground. Leave your head up in the clouds if you must, the parsha says, but the rest of you, our body and your heart, will have to deal with the practicalities of these virtues.
So the litany begins. We have Israelites who must serve as servants or slaves, perhaps because they stole and don’t have the money to pay back (that’s Rashi’s take on it). We have men who sell their daughters as servants. We have people who curse their parents. We have oxen that gore and security guards who lose the objects they are supposed to keep safe.
The list is long. Read the parsha and marvel at how many commonplace and not-so-commonplace situations were addressed 3000 years ago. This is the life we are supposed to lead. These are the practical implementations of the creed we profess with the Shma Yisrael and the Ten Commandments.
Because “it is not in the heavens.” The Torah is not for the angels. It is not so far removed from us that we can’t live the true Torah life. For the most part, all it takes is a lot of menschlichkeit – being a caring person.
Our parsha gives us a “Being a Caring Person for Dummies” set of guidelines, if you will. How to treat your Israelite slaves, male and female. What happens if your servant happens to lose an eye or an arm. What to do in case your ox gores someone. Or what happens if your ox falls into the ditch I dug in public property. What you can and can’t do in someone else’s field (hint: you can eat the fruit but not pack it into a basket)..
Those are purely practical, almost legalistic formulations of steps to be taken in such and such situations. But there’s more. There’s the overriding concern for the weak members of society. The widows, the orphans, the strangers, the converts. The people who can be pushed around with impunity because they have no one to stand up and push back in their name.
We are supposed to be especially attuned to their plight because we were strangers and slaves in Egypt. In fact, we’ve just been released! Well, wouldn’t you expect a former slave to be especially empathetic to person in a similar situation?
Not necessarily. We know that children who grow up in an abusive home environment have a greater chance of being abusive to their children. So, people who have suffered under the rule of others might want to pass it forward – not the good stuff but the bad stuff.
We are warned to be extra cautious with the widow, orphan, convert, stranger because if not… What’s going to happen? We read the payment schedule for a servant who loses an eye, for an ox that gores a person, for a person who digs a ditch into which someone falls – but for the weak… If you abuse the weak, the Torah says, and he (or she) cries out to God…. “I will hear them” and you will suffer the punishment of being widows, orphans, etc. No legal punishment is specified for mistreating the weak.
Perhaps in those times, the threat of divine punishment was considered more severe than human punishment in court. But today it almost sounds like the UN saying nu-nu-nu to some country (usually Israel) for some action.
Perhaps this differential treatment can be attributed to the lack of any objective quantification of mistreatment of the widow, etc. She was barred from participating in 10,000 shekels worth of activity? He was deprived to the tune of 50,000 shekels in educational rights? How do you calculate such things?
But that is not the point. The point is that we have an obligation to protect those who are weak. We do – we send medical and army missions to assist in tragedies around the world.
Yet it is here at home that we see our shortcomings, in dealing with our own weak population and those who come for assistance. We have reasons, some of them justified, but the fact remains that, in Louis Nizer’s words, True religion is the life we lead, not the creed we profess.