Parashat Mishpatim – Erev Shabbat 28 January 2022
Week of 23-29 January 2022
Torah portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18 Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26
Theme: A Unique Covenant Code Centered on Codified Empathy
On Sunday, January 16, our church engaged together in our annual Covenant Renewal Service. The solemn service of repentance and recommitment took its cues from John Wesley’s Covenant service started 1755, which was based on a 1663 Puritan publication by Richard Alleine, which drew upon Israel’s covenant renewal in 2 Kgs. 23:1-3 and Deut. 29:2-15, and the original Covenant Ratification (Ex. 24:1-18) in this week’s Parashat Mishpatim, the Parasha of rules or laws.
In Exodus 20, we witnessed the Lord giving Israel the foundational laws, commonly known as the Ten Commandments; Parashat Mishpatim dives more deeply, providing the people of God with a “collection of case rulings and rules, referred to as the ‘Book of the Covenant’ (24:7), the ‘Covenant Code,’ or the ‘Covenant Collection’” (Eskenazi and Weiss, 427). The Covenant Code encapsulates God’s intentionality in disciplining Israel into what it means to be God’s people. Yet, one might reasonably wonder just how unique this Covenant Code is. Doesn’t it mimic other law codes of Israel’s surrounding neighbors?
Just as Israel’s God was unique, so too was their Covenant Code. It overwhelmingly included women in its laws, even requiring equitable compensation for harm to women as to men (Eskenazi and Weiss, 427). It gave provision and protection to slaves, emphasized the rights of widows, orphans, and foreigners, and even by its order, demonstrated greater importance to life than property. And unlike Ancient Near East neighbors’ codes, Israel’s Covenant Code was to be heard, known and observed by all (Ex 24:7), not just a select few.
But even more than this, the Covenant Code uniquely codified empathy: it legislated for compassion; and required kindness. Rabbi Held writes, “God wants Israel to create an anti-Egypt: a society in which the weak and defenseless are protected rather than exploited, loved rather than degraded” (181). Why would Israel’s Covenant Code expect – even require – empathy? God reminded them, “Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9 CEB). Israel’s history of pain-filled generational slavery was to be remembered, and in remembering, was to produce empathy, compassion and kindness. “Empathy must animate and intensify your commitment to the dignity and well-being of the weak and vulnerable” (Held 175). Disinterest or self-interested protection instead of empathy was not an option, and to ensure Israel followed through, God placed himself at the center of this codified empathy. The Lord – not a king or ruler – oversees and monitors Israel’s empathy, promising, “If you do treat them badly and they cry out to me, you can be sure that I’ll hear their cry” (Ex. 22:23 CEB), and reminding Israel again in this week’s Haftarah.
At first reading, Parashat Mishpatim might appear an odd collection of outdated laws with little connection to 2022. However, its unique characteristics and commitment to codified empathy provide immediate application. Might we all recommit ourselves, declaring as Israel did, “Everything that the Lord has said we will do, and we will obey” (Ex. 24:7 CEB).
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Of the several unique characteristics of Israel’s Covenant Code discussed above, which is most compelling or surprising to you? Why? 2. As you reflect on your own painful experiences, do they tend to produce empathy and compassion, or disinterest and self- protection? 3. Where else in Scripture do we find codified empathy? How might codified empathy look today?
Bibliography: Eskenazi, T.C. and A.L. Weiss. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: 2008). Held, S. The Heart of Torah Vol 1 (Philadelphia: 2017).
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared byRev. Dr. Kristen Bennett Marble, USA, Bat Kol Alumna: 2013