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February 13, 2014

Parashat Mishpatim
Hazzan Marcia Lane

Not in Heaven 

In the Talmud, Bava Metzia 58b-59b, there is a famous story of a discussion concerning the kashrut, the ritual purity, of an oven. The majority of rabbis rule in one direction, but Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus consistently rules in the other direction. He calls upon a carob tree, and on a stream, and even on the walls of the school, and they behave in supernatural ways in order to attest to the correctness of his ruling. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer calls for a heavenly voice to confirm his judgement, and when it does, albeit on behalf of the majority, Rabbi Yehoshua answers the voice by saying famously, “It is not in heaven!” That is, the adjudication of this dispute is not a matter for God to decide. People, fallible though we may be, have the final say in adjudicating on earthly matters.

It would seem reasonable to insist that concerning speed limits, or the tax code, or any of a thousand statutes that are part of state or federal or even international law, their establishment and maintenance is a civil, not a spiritual matter. Lo bashamayim hi. It does not reside in the heavens. But this week’s Torah portion seems to say that for Jews, even if the issue is civil law, there is at least a vested heavenly interest.

In this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, law comes right down to earth with what can perhaps best be described as an accordion file of civil statutes dealing with rights of slaves and of slave owners, penalties for manslaughter, theft, kidnapping, and property damage, principles of money-lending, of witness reports, the prohibition against bribery, and an assortment of other legal issues. The range of human affairs is covered in varying degrees of detail. But then, after covering a long list of person-to-person legal issues, we have a sudden turn in tone. “You shall not curse God, nor revile a judge.” (Ex. 22:27) The implication is that earthly judges should be regarded with a measure of reverence, perhaps because one of the most difficult jobs must be to adjudicate between people, to deal with personal grievances, to dispense justice.

The end of the portion turns to the realm of halakhah – Jewish spiritual and ritual law: the observances of Shabbat and festivals, prohibitions on worshipping other gods, ethical treatment of strangers, and the laws of requiring the land to rest in the seventh year.

One way to understand the tenor of the parashah is to see all matters of law, whether civil or ritual, as having a double valence; if you will, a foot in two worlds. While it is true that civil law primarily concerns itself with matters between people, and that human judges have total responsibility for rendering a decision, God also has an interest in the outcome. A just verdict is one that satisfies not only the letter of the law, but the spirit as well. One might say that heaven is pleased when human judges agree with the One Judge.

In a similar vein, in the observance of festivals and Shabbat, while these are primarily matters between an individual and God, the community fares better when ritual law is observed. Beasts of burden rest on the seventh day, the land rests in the seventh year, and the earth is better for it. The act of bringing first fruits or a tithe from the harvest fulfills two purposes: It acknowledges our gratitude to God for the bounty of the earth and it makes us thoughtful concerning best practices in agriculture. Both heaven and earth have a stake in the outcome.

In his book on the nature, function, and intricacies of Halakhah, Jewish ritual law, Eliezer Berkovits opens his very first chapter with these words:

The Torah is all-inclusive. It embraces the entire life of the Jewish people. Halacha, therefore, has to interpret the intention of the Torah for all areas of Jewish existence; the spiritual, the ethical, the economic, the social.(Not in heaven, Eliezer Berkovits. Shalem Press, 1983, p. 3)

Despite the title of his book, our parashah seems to suggest that all matters of law exist in both the earthly and in the heavenly realms. Something to keep in mind the next time you are tempted to speed!


Hazzan Marcia Lane has served congregations in New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. She currently lives in Nashville.