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Mishpatim (Laws) – Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Human Relationships are Sacred

Most of this week’s Torah portion involves various civil laws which help govern a kind and generous society.  The portion begins with the laws of slavery, which when compared to the norms of society in Biblical times, are particularly humane.  It continues to deal with issues of accidental killing, murder, kidnapping, respecting one’s parents, personal injury and property damage issues, and the relevant compensation, theft, and the just treatment of strangers, widows, and orphans.  Rules of justice and prohibitions against bribery are also mentioned.

These laws are presented just after the Ten Commandments are given on Mt. Sinai.  Following an event of such spiritual magnitude, an event that includes thunder and lightning, trumpets blowing and God’s revelation to human beings, the Torah immediately transitions to the most mundane of issues, issues regarding daily problems between human beings, with seemingly no relationship to God.

Furthermore, it is unclear when these laws were actually spoken to Moses.  Just after the Ten Commandments are given, Scripture tells us that Moses goes into the mist “where God was” (Exodus 20:18*) [Exodus 20:21]. God speaks to Moses and gives him these laws.  However, just after Moses teaches these laws, God speaks to him and commands him to ascend the mountain to receive the tablets.  The portion ends when Moses is on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  Does Moses go up the mountain twice, speak to God on two different occasions, or is this all one long teaching from God which Moses hears on Sinai and transmits to the Children of Israel later on?  Scripture is unclear.

However, what is clear is that these basic moral and civil laws are placed in the Bible just after the Ten Commandments are given.  And perhaps that is the point.  It is probable that Moses actually heard these laws while on Sinai during his 40 day sojourn there, and that he actually only taught the Children of Israel these laws much later, after the sin of the Golden Calf and after Moses’ final descent from Sinai.  However, the Bible is communicating an important message to us by setting the order as it does.

Many faiths contain elements of spirituality, of some sort of spiritual encounter.  And, it is quite natural that following such an experience, a human being will no longer be interested in mundane and earthly issues. He wants to remain in the heavens, communicating with God and attending only to his spiritual relationship.  But God brings us back down to earth.

Actually, the first commandment listed after Revelation is the instruction to build an altar, out of earth.  We are told that this earth-bound altar will be a human vehicle to serve God.  Following this section, God takes us to the core of human moral existence.  If we ignore our fellow man, if we act unjustly, if we steal, murder, cause injury to another, we are sinning against God.  We cannot absolve ourselves of responsibilities to our fellow man merely because we have experienced the spiritual.  We must immediately come back down to earth and make sure the strangers in our midst are comfortable and the widows and orphans are cared for. 

The human-bound commandments are purposely placed where they will ground us in our human responsibilities.  And the text purposely jumps back and forth between Moses on the mountain with God and Moses teaching the people the nitty gritty of living a moral life.  For that is what our life is supposed to be – a constant tension, and constant synthesis, between our relationship with God and our relationship with our fellow human beings. 

Shabbat Shalom From Samaria

Sondra Baras
Director, Israel Office
CFOIC Heartland

* Exodus 20:21 is Exodus 20:18 in the Jewish Bible


5 thoughts on “Mishpatim (Laws) – Exodus 21:1 – 24:18”

  1. Interesting observations. Spiritually when one refuses to hear the Word of the Lord he is marked and becomes a slave of the wicked one and can no more hear the truth. As Isaiah wrote their ears have become heavy that they cannot hear

  2. Yes rather typical of a news agency like CNN to challenge the idea of the Bible being G-d’s Word, and how predictable that they highlight slavery. You wonder how stupid these news agencies can get.

  3. I have learned a great revelation very nice teaching from heartland HOLY Land ISRAEL in fact Israel Israel has all basic human rights and human care in Africa especially Tanzania we had suffered slavery trade for 1000 years from 1720 through 1934 slavery trade Islam and Muslims propagation hindered economic security of African region for until missionary from Western Dr leak arrived in Zanzibar and paid or bought slaves for them to be free and negotiate with Arabs to suspend such a cruelty and dishonest dishuman horrible
    If African State would stand together now we could invade the emirate State and claim compasations refund from This terrible people Arabs Even now Africa is still under slavery of different types in economics security and fredom

  4. Thanks, Sondra and Kim, for your weekly teachings on Tora. I especially appreciated the point that an experience in the heavenlies is one thing but coming down from that mountain to face human fault and fraility is something else. Barbara

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