23 January 2019
In the chapters in this week’s parashah we read of the importance of the social order, of right relationships and of ethical and moral conduct. The previous chapter recounted God’s word spoken to Moses in the Ten Commandments. In order to have the rights of individuals respected and for the functioning of a stable society, certain structures, laws, roles and behavior are needed to be clearly understood by the community. This parashah is seen as an extension of the Ten Commandments.
These ordinances give a more detailed explanation of the laws commanded by God. We know that the Torah is the basis of human life. It clearly illustrates the right path to live and regulates both the life of work and of leisure. Our relationship with God shows us the way we are to act, how we relate with God and with one another. “The laws of the Torah are cited not as the products of human wisdom and experience but on a reflection of divine principles built into the world. Thus the dignity of a human being is as much a permanent part of God’s creation as the law of gravity.” (Etz Hayim 456)
In these chapters we read of the social and religious laws and their expression which affects both individuals and the community. Many of these relate to concerns of property and restitution. The very essence of these laws is that human beings are made in the image of God and therefore they are to act responsibly and with dignity. Individuals need to be just, to care for and to uphold the other. “This concept is arguably the greatest teaching that Torah has given the world. Every human being is created in the image of Almighty God and partakes in those essential divine values.” (Torah Insights 114)
Laws grow out of the historical experience of a people and how a society chooses to govern itself illustrates how much human life is valued. It was Israel who had experienced two great civilizations, that of Abraham from Mesopotamia and Moses from Egypt. Thus they were able to observe both the accomplishments and the inhumanity of these nations.
I am here reminded of the words of Micah who speaks so simply of God’s call to each person, “ With what shall I come before the Lord?…..He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:6-8) We, as human beings are always asking – what do I need to do and how do I do it? Our relationship with God entails certain expectations and in this passage from Micah, we see clearly that the person’s orientation is both towards God and neighbor. Both of these calls will deeply affect the other.
How a society relates with the weak and the defenseless says a great deal about the values of that society. The Torah clearly states, in fact it is repeated 36 times, “You shall love the stranger.” Why is such importance placed on the stranger? We know that the stranger is the one who is alone, without family, friends, community and sometimes even without a country. All too often he/she is kept on the outside and not accepted or included in the community. The Israelites knew well the plight of the stranger in their hearts and souls. A stranger is a human like you and me! God constantly reminded the Israelites, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Dt. 5:15)
The celebration of the feasts is another important aspect of this parashah and it is good to note that the Shabbat, alone of all the holy days is included in the Ten Commandments. “In the book of Exodus, Shabbat is linked to the creation of the world and divine rest whereas in the book of Deuteronomy Shabbat is linked to the exodus and speaks of freedom and an end to oppression. Side by side with glorification of work and productivity, halkacha insists on the scared dignity of being. Along with an affirmation of the sanctity of private property, the tradition teaches that the land (and all property) belongs to the Lord.” (Greenberg 149)
For Reflection and Discussion: Are the values I live and cherish visible to others?
Bibliography: I. Greenberg, The Jewish Way (Summit Books, New York 1988), B. Leff &Y.Epstein,Torah Insights (Mesorah Publications New York 2000), D. Lieber, Etz Hayim (The Jewish Publication Society, New York 2001)
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