With Freedom Comes Responsibility
This week’s parashah Mishpatim begins with וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, V’eleh ha mishpatim…“And these are the judgments that you shall set before them:” By beginning with “and”, it suggests that it’s connected with the previous portion Yitro, in which we read that God had personally inscribed the Ten Statements in stone and gave them to Moshe at Mt. Sinai. Moshe would then bring them to the people who were waiting for him to come back down from a mountain which shook with thunder, it was covered in cloud and smoke, with the sound of the shofar blasting from the heavens. It was an awesome experience. Nothing like that had ever happened before nor would ever happen again. These people were a mixed multitude, of both native-born descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the stranger among us. These commandments were given to all humanity.
The 53 judgments in Mishpatim were given to people who had just been set free from slavery and who would now begin the slow process of being weaned from their past. Although their lifestyle was quite different from ours, the principles of slavery remain the same. Many of us are still slaves today…to tyrannical bosses, to our own workaholism or other addictions, to politicians, to religious leaders, to various ideologies, and lately to big pharma with its medical puppets, etc. The Creator wants us to be free and in Mishpatim, He will show us, that with freedom comes responsibility.
The mishpatim would bring application to the original ten and since there was no social media in Biblical days, they were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. The Creator used a technique to make it easier for us to memorize them called “mnemonics”, which can be seen only in the Hebrew. For example, “Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God: in Hebrew (now listen carefully) “lo tisa et Shem Adonai elocheicha l’shav לא תשא את-שם-יהוה אלהיך לשוא and here is the mishpat in Chapter 23:1 לא תשא שמע שוא אל-תשת lo tisa shema shav (same words).…”You shall not raise a false report.” It’s easy to see that this judgment was referring to the third commandment. Another example of this technique is in chapter 22: 15-17 15And if a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife…. This is followed by…17You shall not allow a sorceress to live.” What does a virgin have to do with a sorceress? In the world of idolatry, a sorceress had to be a virgin to keep her powers intact. My last example is found in chapter 23:19: 19 The best of the first fruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. What do the first fruits have to do with boiling a kid in its mother’s milk? It stems from a Canaanite fertility rite of that day. The first fruit did not only refer to vegetation; in this case, it referred to the fruit of the womb. Here the Creator was emphasizing that He is the only One who can make us fertile, not any pagan god. Sadly, from this verse our sages invented the law prohibiting us from eating meat and milk together; this has nothing to do with it; it was about idolatry and superstition.
Why would this technique of mnemonics be of any importance? For me, it demonstrates that, like a loving father, God wants us to remember and to obey his Words. Religious mystics love to say that His Words are so deep that only a chosen few can reach their level. Yet in Deut 30:14 it says “No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” The Torah teaches us to be practical and down to earth, yet it does not leave out the beauty of the mystical as we read here in Exodus 24: “and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for clarity.” Wow, that takes my breath away!
In Mishpatim, we read the boundaries of the land that the LORD had allotted to us; it was much larger than the small piece of land that is Israel today. He told us that although we would have to fight for it, He would be with us all the way as we slowly took it over from our enemies. We were not to follow the idolatry of the people who lived there, and He told us what would happen both when we obeyed and when we disobeyed. If we obeyed, He would keep the enemy and all diseases away from us. Twice at the end of this portion, the people who were gathered at Mt. Sinai said, “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do.” Have we done that? When we give our word, it is vital that we keep it. It can even affect generations after us.
Here we are told to allow the land to lie fallow every 7th year. We didn’t do that for 490 years, so God allowed King Nebuchadnezzar to take us captive to Babylon where we remained for 70 years. Do the math…God will have His way with His Land, with or without His people. There is a high price to pay for our disobedience, but the flip side is that obedience brings such blessings upon us.
Referring to the Fifth Commandment, chapter 21 vs 15 and 18 says “He who strikes his father, or his mother shall be put to death.” “He who insults or “reviles” his father, or his mother shall be put to death.” It may sound harsh but to honor our parents results in our living long in the land or in other words building a strong society based on the model of a healthy family. God is our Creator; He is our father, and we are His children. He made man in His image and the only people to whom He gave the ability to bring life into this world, is our father and mother. They hold a very special role and by getting rid of their role we are destroying our world. Our parents represent the closest thing to God on earth. They gave us life and here we are told to honor them; God doesn’t say to love them or to agree with their lifestyle, after all they are simply human beings with faults and frailties, like any of us. We have no right to judge them, we leave that to God.
But how do we honor them after they are gone? By forgiving them. I have spoken to people who say that they could never forgive their mother or father for what they did to them, even after they have been dead for many years. But who are they hurting? Only themselves! By eliminating the gender of our parents, male and female, father and mother, and by removing the understanding that there is a higher authority, we are destroying the foundation of our civilization. We are not a friend to our children; we are their parents and hopefully a good role-model.
Mishpatim goes into a lot of detail about what to do if they caused injury or death to another person. It emphasizes “responsibility” toward others in society. As the nation of Israel was being formed, we had to grow up, to progress from being self-centered individuals to thinking collectively. God wants us to be responsible for one another. If we did that, we wouldn’t need most of the social services that the governments now have to provide. That comes in the guise of socialism which sounds wonderful because it promises to take care of us, but in truth, it enslaves us to the state. The Torah teaches that if we cause an injury which results in a person having to recuperate at home, we need to take care of them until they are restored to health. Today this is done by insurance companies. The Torah emphasizes justice, and people need to take responsibility when they injure either a person or any of their property. It’s called making reparation.
Ex. 21: 37 states “If a man shall steal an ox or a sheep and kill it or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for one ox and four sheep for one sheep.” This shows us that even a thief must be responsible for his actions. He not only has to return what he stole but also include the cost of damages due to the stress he caused. In a community in which we are accountable to each other, there needs to be a Beit Din, a house of judgement which consists of an honest tribunal “under God” to judge cases involving all types of law. This goes back to when the 12 tribes of Israel appointed judges and set up courts of law (Deuteronomy 16:18). “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.” These regulations form the basis of our justice system but sadly, they have been lost now that the Ten Commandments have been removed from our courtrooms. It’s time to put them back where they belong. Imagine what a world it would be if the United Nations lived by them.
Our Rabbi Percy was particularly interested in this principle for our community, and I believe that it is still something that we need to be faithful to as much as we can. Being accountable to one another is very difficult especially when most of us only meet on Zoom. However, he taught us how important it is to confront another person who may have hurt us and not to sweep it under the rug or gossip about them to someone else. Over the last 32 years here, I have had to be confronted by someone I hurt, or I had to speak to someone about what they were doing. It’s never easy to muster up the courage and the humility to speak to people directly in a way that builds them up. It is far easier to go to someone else to state our case so that we can feel justified about our position. This can turn into gossip, and we need to be so careful of that. It is a spiritual sickness that comes upon the soul when we bring down another person to build ourselves up. This is very different than asking for wise advice about how to approach another person to help them. Our kavanah, our intention is always something that we need to check.
Mishpatim is about how to treat our neighbor as we would want to be treated. The idea of “midah keneged midah”, measure for measure is real; most people don’t understand why bad things happen to us, but for the most part, we bring it upon ourselves. We were not called to be judges of one another’s behaviour which is why Rabbi Yeshua told us to take the log out of our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s, however this does not mean that we do not have the right and the responsibility to kindly challenge each other when we see that someone we care about is doing something wrong. It is our duty as children of God because we are in a family, His family. Is it easy? No; is it necessary? Yes.
Mishpatim teaches us to bring in the best of our first fruits into the House of the LORD. Those who are tied to their pockets will always suffer because it is a matter of trust. This is a community; it is not a social club; it is a congregation in which we are called upon to help one another; to have respect for one another. We are to care for the widows, the orphans, and the foreigner, i.e., the most vulnerable among us, which is why we need the resources to provide for that as well as to fulfill our mandate. Our Creator gave us the Ten Commandments and these mishpatim help us understand how to apply them to our lives. With God at the helm, we have everything we need to live a good life and to have a healthy relationship with Him, with ourselves and with each other, in love and truth. It may be a tough journey but with God nothing is impossible.