Sentences and Laws

Our G-dcast story teller this week, David Henkin, asks some pretty provocative questions about why it was that Moses/Moshe decided to write down the words he heard from God and record them in a book, that we now call the “Torah.” He ponders what happens when people have the capacity to read words rather than to only hear those words spoken aloud.

Jews have been known as “People of the Book.” I am also wondering about the differences between cultures that revere reading and cultures with more of an oral tradition. What kinds of changes do you imagine take place when people go from listening to words to the act of reading them?

The name of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, actually can mean either “sentences” (meaning a string of words with subject and predicate) or “laws.” Mishpatim enumerates many laws that, on the surface, don’t seem to have anything to do with one another. These laws read like statements and pronouncements; they are terse, not well detailed, and, in fact, provide the rabbis of the Talmud (200-600 CE) much raw material on which to construct the whole Jewish system of proper behaviors and observances.

Just look at Exodus 23 verses 19-22. First there is a sentence (a mishpat) about bringing first fruits to the House of the Lord, followed by this: “You shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk,” which is the tiny sentence upon which the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) are built. This is then followed by a sentence about angels guarding us “on the way” and bringing us to “the place I have made ready.” Huh? We go from a law on first fruits, to recipes, to angels, in quick succession. What possible relationship do these laws have with one another?

This strange list of seemingly unconnected laws gave rise to hundreds of commentaries and interpretations. I think of this parasha almost like a stream of consciousness list, where some laws on the list are extremely important for the moral and ethical functioning of the new society of Israelites. Here’s one such example: “you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty, nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute” (Exodus 23:2-3). In other words, when you are called to be a witness, don’t lie and don’t side with either the powerful or the weak — just tell the truth.

There are also laws concerning slavery, which seems strange given that the Israelites were just themselves slaves; now they seem to be getting laws concerning the proper treatment of slaves, as if they were owners of slaves. The human propensity to enslave another human being seems to have traveled from the days of the Bible all the way to the 21st century. To read more about how we might think about the whole slavery issue, make sure to read Letting Our People Go: Bringing Us All Out of Egypt by Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett.

Our stream of consciousness law list also has laws about not tolerating sorceresses and laws against bestiality…. Do you think that we could extract some relevance to our lives today from these prohibitions? I mean, it’s not a leap to get the significance of a law forbidding us to steal or to kidnap, or a law enjoining us to return borrowed property; but some of the laws here really need to be unpacked in order for us to appreciate them.

One of the laws in this parasha that is most frequently quoted is found in Exodus 21:23-25: “but if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” This law is often misunderstood to mean that the perpetrator gets the same exact punishment inflicted on him or her that s/he dealt to a victim. Kind of a “measure for measure” type of punishment. However, the rabbis of the Talmud subjected all of these one-liner laws to prolonged scrutiny and out of their deliberations whole tomes of legal procedures and jurisprudence were written and became the Talmudic codes. They interpreted the “eye for an eye” law to mean that an assailant must pay monetary damages for the injury s/he caused, the heavier the damage, the bigger the fine. This “eye for an eye” law is referred to in Latin as “lex talionis” and was humanized by the rabbis of the Talmud; based on these verses in this week’s parasha, the Talmud explains that the Bible mandates a sophisticated five-part monetary form of compensation, consisting of payment for “damages, pain, medical expenses, incapacitation, and mental anguish” — the same categories underlying many modern legal codes.

To summarize, the laws in this parasha merit the full treatment of years of discussion by rabbis and teachers, collected in codes from the Talmud to today, to make them relevant to Jews and to Judaism…. It’s all in the details.

And one more thing: take a moment to read the mystical narrative of Moshe, his brother Aaron, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, and the 70 elders, as they ascend the Holy Mountain to meet God, in Exodus 24:9-11. There seems to have been quite a party, complete with a sapphire pavement. Let your imagination run wild as you try to figure out what the text wants us to know. Have fun!