Parashat Mishpatim – Erev Shabbat 17 February 2023 (5783)
Week of 12-18 February 2023
Torah portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18 Haftarah: 2 Kings 12:1-17
Theme: Circles of concern and action 

This week’s parashah is a collection of mishpatim (“rules” or “ordinances”) and is sometimes referred to as the “Book of the Covenant” (Sefer ha-B’rit, see Ex. 24:7). The word mishpatim comes from the root shin-pe-tet, which means “to judge.” This week’s parashah contains laws on slavery and injury (Ex. 21:1-36), theft, the destruction of property and moral behaviour (21:37-23:9), as well as several cultic ordinances (23:10-33, Plaut 511-512). Whilst some of these laws reflect world views and actions that are no longer deemed acceptable—such as owning slaves—studying the parashah can offer new insights into how we are called to engage justly and compassionately with other members of the community of creation to which we belong.

The word ger (“stranger” JPS or “alien” NRSV) occurs over thirty times in the Torah and is the subject of two injunctions in this parashah. Might we call the stranger or alien (ger) an immigrant today? In the first instance (Ex. 22:21), the Israelites are reminded that they were aliens in the land of Egypt and know what it is to be discriminated against because of this. Immigrants lacked the support networks provided by familial and societal connections and were at risk of exploitation, like those experiencing poverty, widows, and orphans, also mentioned in the following verses (Ex. 22:22-26, Berlin 148). The second injunction (Ex. 23:9) against the oppression of immigrants occurs in the light of the vulnerable position in which they might find themselves when appearing before a court “composed of local or tribal leaders” (Ibid. 150). 

Laws such as these compelled the Israelites—as they also compel us—to expand our circles of concern and action beyond self-interest. Three millennia after these laws were written, immigrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum still find themselves susceptible to discrimination and oppression, particularly as the movement of people across the globe increases exponentially. Those who have not experienced what it is to walk in these people’s shoes must instead draw upon their capacity for empathy to ensure that a desire for justice and equity leads to action ensuring their well-being.

Laws about the sabbatical year (Ex. 23:10-11) and Sabbath (Ex. 23:12) follow the injunction about the treatment of immigrants by judges. The practice of sh’mitah, or letting the land rest, is discussed in greater detail in Lev. 25:1-7, where the circle of concern is expanded to include the good of the land itself and not just those who benefit from it. This injunction is further expanded in Deut. 15:1-3 to include the cancellation of debts. The Creator is deeply concerned for all creation and compels us to action to ensure its flourishing.

Sabbath rest (Ex. 23:12) is a right afforded not only to Israelites, for whom it is a religious obligation but also to domesticated animals, enslaved people and immigrants. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (in Neril 211) notes that “The Sabbath is a school for teaching the recognition of every other creature beside oneself as being equally a child and object [sic] of the same Creator; and this freeing of all creatures from the mastery of the human being is one of the objectives of the Sabbath.”

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. How broad is my circle of concern? Does it include only those closest to me? Is it large enough to include all members of the community of creation and not just human beings? 2. How might this ever-widening circle of concern lead to advocacy and action that prioritises the flourishing of the entire community of creation?

BibliographyBerlin & Brettler Eds., The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd Edn (Oxford, 2014); Neril & Dee, Eco Bible: Vol 1, An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus (ICSD, 2020); Plaut and Stein, eds., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (URJ, 2006); Sarna, ExodusThe JPS Torah Commentary (JPS, 1991).

This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by 
Mark David Walsh, Bunurong, Australia, 
Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013


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