Parashat Mishpatim – Erev Shabbat 21 February 2020
Week of 16-22 February 2020
Torah portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18 Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26
Theme: We will do and we will hear

In this week’s portion the Torah presents for the first time a detailed code of behavior. This code begins with “And these are the mishpatim (ordinances, statutes, laws, rules) that you shall place before them” (Ex 21:1). The conjunction “and” indicates continuity, the laws are a direct continuation of the Decalogue that has just preceded them. All the laws are derived from the same source at Sinai. Unlike the laws of their neighbors, they were not given in the name of kings or even in the name of Moses; it is God who gives them. The laws are not abstract ideas of a God who is above the fray but rather they are concepts that are intimately tied to the experience of the people. They are a combination of civil, moral and religious laws and Moses is instructed to teach these statutes to the entire population. Teaching the laws to the entire people is practically unparalleled in the ancient world as they are usually given to the elite. Obeying the laws will create not only a harmonious society, but also a just and holy one. Everyone is to be aware of the principles of fairness and justice, charity and compassion and these are to be applied in daily life.

The legal code begins with ten laws regulating the institution of slavery and this week’s portion opens the section of ordinances by decreeing that Hebrew slaves are to be set free after six years (21:2-6). The emphasis given to slavery by the Torah has a clear historical explanation. The Israelites had recently experienced liberation from slavery in Egypt and were instructed to be especially sensitive to the condition of the slave (Etz Hayim, 457). “You yourselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt.“ (23:7) This theme is repeated thirty-six times in the Torah. Early Israel like their neighbors accepted slavery as a given part of the social order although it involved a basic contradiction. A slave in many ways was treated as a ‘thing’ a possession, yet he was also a human being. Eved (Hebrew for slave) is derived from the verb ayin/vav/dalet “to work”. The slave is a worker or a servant and received no wages for his work (as distinct from sakhir, a hired worker); he is a member of his master’s household (Gen 24:2; Lev 22:11) and the master exercises rights over him: the master may choose a wife for him and retains ownership of her (Ex 21:4). Being members of the master’s household, they enjoy the benefit of and are liable to, the duty of keeping the Sabbath (20:10). A master shall not be ruthless to the slave (21:26-27); killing a slave is liable to be punished in the same way as the killing of any free person even if the master commits the act (21:20). (Encyclopedia Judaica “Slavery”)

The portion ends with a description of how the covenant was concluded. The people give their formal assent to the record (“book”) of the covenant (24:1-14). Actually, they do it twice (24:3+7), once before the law is written down and once afterward (Plaut, 512). The people hear the Word of God and respond, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and we will hear” (na’aseh v’nishnah, Ex. 24:7). The covenant has two partners. It is founded exclusively on what God has done, but it cannot be fulfilled without the people’s confirmation that they desire to live according to the divine will. The giving of Torah must be followed by the reception of Torah.

For Reflection and Discussion: [1] How do we treat the alien or stranger in our area? [2] Do we enslave anyone, by our words or the way we act? Or are we enslaved in any way? [3] What does it really mean to say “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do”?

Bibliography: The African Bible (Nairobi 1999); Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary (JPS NY 2001); Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary (New York 1981); Encyclopedia Judaica (CD Rom)

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