Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Mishpatim, 5778

Parashat Mishpatim, 5778

February 8, 2018

A D’var Torah for Mishpatim
by, Cantor Sandy Horowitz, ’14

Parashat Mishpatim contains over fifty laws covering a range of subjects, which are related to the Israelite people by God through Moses. Having just received the ten commandments in the previous Torah portion, now come the details.

The first law in Mishapatim states, “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge” (Exodus 21:2). Slavery is certainly a hot topic for the newly freed Israelites. While not abolishing slavery, this and other related laws insert an insistence on humanity with regard to the treatment of others. This ethical backbone is reinforced as we read, twice in this portion alone, about the treatment of the stranger: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:20). “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). These too, are clearly relatable to the Israelites.

Many other laws included here however, seem remote and even irrelevant to this group of wandering Jews, pertaining more to a land-owning, settled society. Among countless similar types of laws with regard to damages we read in Exodus 22:4, “If a man leads his animals into a field or a vineyard, or lets his animal loose and it eats in another’s field, the best of his field or the best of his vineyard he shall pay.” This can hardly have held much meaning to our ancestors who owned neither fields nor vineyards!

So, why now? Why not wait with presenting these laws until the people are about to enter the promised land? After all, the Divine Presence is clearly in charge here, surely God will take care of the details?

A possible explanation is suggested by examining the people’s two responses to Moses. First, in Exodus 24:3 we read, “So Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances, and all the people answered with one voice (vaya’an kol ha’am kol ehad) saying, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do (na’aseh).”

Then, in Exodus 24:7: “He [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “all that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will hear.”

These responses differ in two significant ways. First, in the second citation the phrase “answered with one voice” is omitted, and “all the people” becomes simply, “and they said” (vayomru). Words that imply a unified response are left out of the second response.

Perhaps this is because of the second difference. Whereas in both citations the people respond with “we will do”; only in the second one do they add, “and we will hear” which is also sometimes translated as “we will understand”.

These differences might suggest that while everyone, with one voice, is willing to agree to follow the laws – after all, as former slaves obedience would have been a familiar condition — not everyone may have been willing or able to add “v’nishma”, a more sophisticated declaration. Indeed, much has been written and argued relating to the significance and priorities of the phrase na’aseh v’nishma, both in ancient and modern writings.

The process of adjusting to their new status as free people included the need to adjust to the concept as well as the implementation of law. Perhaps these specific laws are introduced now in order to allow time for the Israelites to become accustomed to the idea that they are becoming a society of free people, living together under a fixed, common set of rules.

Another reason for providing these laws so early on may have to do with not only the rule of law, but also the role of God. At the end of the Torah we read that “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10). God will not always be the Sole Driving Force; the people will eventually have to learn to govern themselves. A reason for presenting the laws so soon may point to God’s own awareness of this eventuality.

With or without God, like our ancestors before us it is up to us to maintain fidelity to the concept of societal law which was established in the Torah. May we continue to value and uphold it, and if necessary, to insist upon it when it is threatened.

Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.