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Showtime is over and it’s time to get down to business. That’s the feeling we get in the transition from the sound and light show at Mount Sinai in Parshat Yitro last week, to Parshat Mishpatim today with its truckload of mitzvoth (53 of them for those who like to keep count) that repeat and reflect the ten commandments we heard last week and add many more.
It’s hard to classify and characterize the many mitzvoth we find in today’s parsha. But there is an overall purpose. Looking at the parsha, what we see are the rudiments for building an organized life; rules that apply to daily events and problems. Servants, property, damages and strangers in the land, holidays, and finally, having a picnic (really!) on Mount Sinai at God’s feet (figuratively speaking, of course).
We see that the first subject is slaves, or more accurately – servants: Israelites who sell themselves as indentured servants in order to pay off debts – that’s the most common explanation. One would think that immediately after being freed from slavery the people would not want read about slavery in the new land in the first commandments of this parsha. But there is a method to this seeming madness.
The message we receive in the first section is that, unlike the situation in Egypt, servitude for the Israelites now has an expiry date. Six years. Furthermore, servants are to be treated well. In later parshot we will see the extremes to which servant-owners have to go when they free their servants.
This, and the rest of the parsha dealing with social and economic laws, has one overarching message. Everyone is equal. Everyone deserves and must receive the same impartial treatment before the law. Widows, orphans, the old and the weak are mentioned, as are the strangers. Strangers are mentioned dozens of times in the Torah as deserving proper treatment because Israelites know what it is to be a stranger in another land.
This same message of equality is reinforced in today’s special maftir, Parshat Shekalim, where the people are told that each person over age 20 must give half a shekel, which will be used for atonement, for census taking and for upkeep of the Tent of Meeting and later the Temple. The rich can’t pay more, the poor can’t pay less. Everyone is equally involved.
Most of the commandments in today’s parsha are socioeconomic. Even those pertaining to serving God are linked to a social imperative. Sacrifice only to God, says one sentence, and the next says, And do not cheat or pressure the stranger. Don’t harass a widow or orphan.
A few sentences on we are told, “Do not take the Name in vain, and don’t follow the wicked to be a false witness. Do not follow the majority to commit evil and don’t take sides in an argument and follow the majority to bias the case. In other words, majority may rule but cannot trample the rights of others. Thus, even Man to God mitzvoth hold sway in man to man relations.
It might seem strange that a mass of former slaves, freed just two months earlier, are given all these laws about property rights, ownership, responsibility for damages caused by their animals. Moishe, don’t you see they are in the desert?
The answer is twofold. First, they lived in a country where people (not necessarily the Israelites) owned property, opened ditches in roads, caused physical harm to others, etc., and there were laws that applied to each case. So they knew about these things. Second, they were being educated for the future, when they would be in their own country. Part of the indoctrination process.
It is sad how much of our local news depicts a situation almost diametrically opposed to what we read in the Torah. No one here is naïve enough to think that any country can be run without some sort of economic hanky-panky. But laws do exist and should be followed.
Revelations about politicians, and even more depressing, about judges who use their positions for personal gain, undercut the very basis of our society – and contradict the qualifications we read last week and today for people who serve the law. This is a blow to Israel as a democracy and to the Jewish values on which Israel as a state was founded.
Weakening our foundations could engender the collapse of our whole structure, our state. When the supports of the infrastructure are intentionally removed, even a small squall can turn into disaster.
Other countries can be corrupt and not be destroyed. Several years ago Greece suffered severe economic woes but even if Greece had gone bankrupt, it faced no threat of being wiped off the map. We are different for two reasons. Despite our bona fides from the Torah, our existence here has been very short in this incarnation (you can’t count 2000 years of praying for Jerusalem as living here). And second, so many people near and far would love to see us gone.
This means that our core has to be strong. We have to have institutions and guiding principles we can believe in. Only with such belief will we have the backbone and strength needed when the going gets tough.
In a week and a half, we go to the voting booths for a third time in less than 12 months. A country can go on with no government, but only for so long. Let’s hope that we don’t have to find out how long a no-government country can actually hold together.