Parashat Mishpatim – Erev Shabbat 12 February 2021
Week of 7-13 February 2021
Torah portion: Exod 21:1-24:18 Haftarah: 2 Kgs 12:1-17
Theme: The Fragility of the Law
Mishpatim, as the name of the parashah suggests, contains 53 items of legislation to address a variety of circumstances. Although these items might be too ancient and foreign to modern ears, what we do in our society is similar. At least the spirit of doing legislation is similar for humans to co-exist within a society or community. But these legislations can also be broken or not respected. A civil disobedience, coup, or insurrection could happen that could upset the status quo. As a community covenant, people must accede to the law so that the law is upheld. The parashah seems to emphasize this.
In Exodus 24:7, “Moses took the, Sefer hab’rit, record of the covenant, and read it aloud to people.” To which the people responded, “kol asher-diver Adonai na-aseh v’nishma.” (All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do.) This phrase, na-aseh v’nishma, is translated as “we will faithfully do.” However, literally, it means, “we will do and we will hear.” The sequence seems to have an anomaly of doing preceding hearing. Etz Hayyim notes, “The Sages were impressed by the eagerness with which the Israelites accepted the burden of being God’s people and following God’s laws.” The Israelites assented and pronounced these words of formal consent on behalf of the succeeding generations. We note this action of formal consent. It was a covenant between God and the people of Israel and not an imposition on the people.
In the modern age, we are born into a society with already existing laws. In one sense, we do say, “we will do and we will hear.” We follow the law and we follow the legal precedence. Then, at times, there are points of contentions in matters of the interpretation of the law being implemented or the law seems to be no longer relevant and thus, is amended or expanded. Then, we conduct a “hearing” in the court of law. (Yes, it’s a pun!)
In a covenant, relationship is vital. In Exodus 24:9-11, we see Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel meeting the God of Israel, eating and drinking, as part of the ceremony of sealing the covenant. The set of rules and regulations would not have been effective if there were no sense of relationship. In a state, for example, there would be a sense of patriotism or belonging of the people that enables the law to be implemented or enforced. In other cases, the law is violently imposed: for instance, when indigenous laws are violated because of the imposition of international laws or principles, like terra nullius, “land belonging to nobody.”
The focus of the haftarah is the liberation of the Hebrew slaves. This seems to emphasize the point that the covenant is meant to ensure the overall health of individuals and the community and to find the perfect balance in doing both. The God of Israel is a God of justice and mercy and the law that arises out of the covenant must ensure the well-being and fullness of life for all.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. In what ways have you observed the law as an instrument of oppression rather than an instrument of justice? 2. How can you participate in creating laws that would ensure justice and the full flourishing of life?
Bibliography: Lieber, D.L., ed. Etz Hayyim (New York: 2001).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Sr. Petite Lao, RNDM, Philippines/Canada, Bat Kol Alumna 2010, 2014, 2019