D’var Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 27th Sh’vat 5776, 6th February 2016
In last week’s parsha, Yitro blithely tells Moshe to appoint judges to sit and dispense justice. Honest, upright, God-fearing, bribery-proof Israelites who will administer justice according to the Torah of God and Moshe. 78,600 judges were needed, according to Rashi, based on the number of judges needed for the tens, the fifties, the hundreds and the thousands. Only in this week’s parsha do we begin see how laws there are and how much the judges had to learn in order to apply these laws properly.
How much time did it take Moshe to bring his new judges up to snuff? And just look at how many of the laws are stuffed into one parsha. 53 mitzvoth. The range of subjects is breathtaking. Here’s a brief resume:
The Jewish slave and maidservant, manslaughter, murder, injuring or cursing a parent, kidnapping, killing or injuring slaves, personal damages, killer ox, a hole in the ground, damage by goring, penalties for stealing. Damage by grazing, damage by fire, the unpaid custodian, the paid custodian, the borrowed article, seduction, occult practices, idolatry and oppression, lending money, strayed animals, the fallen animal, Shmitah (7th) year, Shabbat, the 3 pilgrimage holidays, prohibition against milk and meat.
Taken together, we can say that the parsha is a repetition of the Ten Commandments we read last week, with specific details illustrating many of them. But what do we actually learn from these specifics?
One thing we learn is that the Torah and the mitzvoth are realistic. This is no idealistic description of a society in which everything works properly. No. We have people whose oxen tend to gore others even though their owners should have kept them tied up. There are people who will drill holes in the middle of the public road where people can fall in. Obviously we can find modern day equivalents of these actions.
We read about slaves. Wait a minute. Haven’t the Israelites just been freed from 200 years of slavery? Shouldn’t it be outlawed? It should, yes, but the reality of the time dictates that slaves are a necessary part of life. So let’s set down the rules and make the conditions bearable, at least for Hebrew slaves, male and female.
And with this we begin to see where the Torah is leading us: to a modus vivendi which looks out for the maximum number of people in society and provides the most humane conditions possible under the circumstances.
Our parsha is also the source of a heated and emotional debate that survives and thrives (if that is the word) to this day. Abortion. If a pregnant woman happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and is hit by one of two men fighting, if she aborts – and there is no tragedy (that is the woman is not killed), the one who hit her will be liable to pay what is determined by the law. If there is damage to the woman (she is killed or maimed), the man in exchange will forfeit his life (will be killed) or will give an eye for an eye – or pay …
It is clear here that the main concern is for the woman, not the fetus. Yet, according to Rabbi Beth Kalisch, when the Bible was translated into Greek and the Septuagint became THE source of Biblical knowledge for the Christians, instead of juxtaposing light injury or severe injury to the woman, the Septuagint version of the text juxtaposes an injury to an “imperfectly formed” fetus versus a “perfectly formed” fetus. This mistranslation gave the life of the fetus greater value than that of mother. And abortion is a red flag to this day.
Beyond the flash point subjects and the pyrotechnics of Mount Sinai, the laws in Mishpatim send us one unmistakable message: that allegedly mundane subjects between man and man are as important as allegedly big ones between man and God. A sort of “God is in the small things” approach.
This is especially important today, in our society. We are supposed to care for and about one another. When we read that special funds for Ethiopian pupils are being cut, against the advice of all the social services involved in helping these people, who reject the cut, we wonder where those few thousand shekels are going to be wasted. When the minister of education promotes the introduction of a separate program for gifted pupils in the religious school system, so that they won’t have to sit in the same class as pupils in the state secular system or Arabs, or learn something against HIS world view, we wonder where those millions of shekels could be used more productively. When Knesset members vote themselves an extra parliamentary assistant as well as a salary hike, we wonder if those millions couldn’t have been used more effectively to keep the elderly warm and properly fed. We have a divine mandate to care for each other. Our government, representing us, has this same divine mandate. What’s not clear? There are so many subjects that cry out for our attention and our indignation that we resemble people in supermarkets facing such a long aisle of breakfast cereals that we are unable to choose.
But I found a potential ray of hope this week. The tax authorities have decided, after a year of dithering, to tax rabbis and holy men and miracle workers for the money they take in for conducting weddings and britot, for kashrut supervision and for selling charms and holy waters. Maybe with the millions in taxes that will be collected, our government will finally be able to afford the small things that they feel unable to provide now (unless of course one of the miracle workers threatens to place a curse on the tax collectors, which will reverse the whole process).
We have a beautiful country with wonderful people. Isn’t it about time we all began to enjoy our natural bounty?