Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simchat Torah in a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mishpatim, which we will read this Shabbat, is actually a book of laws all on its own. This Torah portion contains dozens of laws that fall into the category of “bein adam l’havero,” meaning commandments relevant to interpersonal relationships.
These laws seemingly have no direct connection to religion, but are connected to society, morals, human relationships, laws pertaining to judges, and more. It is no coincidence that this portion appears immediately following Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, when the Jewish nation received the Torah, which we read about last Shabbat. Based on the biblical description, this was the order of things: The first laws given after Ma’amad Har Sinai were social laws that convey principles of hessed – of charity and justice.
Furthermore, after Moses finished reading the long list of laws, he performed a ceremony making a covenant between God and the People of Israel. This ceremony was performed on a book which the Torah calls Sefer Habrit, the Book of the Covenant. But what did this book contain? Many commentators understood that Sefer Habrit refers to the list of social laws in the Torah portion; this list that was written in the book and upon which the covenant was made, as is described in the Torah: “And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, ‘All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear.’” (Exodus 24:7) The famous declaration of “We will do and we will hear” was said, as is written in the Torah, about all the commandments, but it directly referred to these social commandments.
These laws contain infinite wisdom as they occasionally deal with the darker sides of human life: How should a slave be treated? What punishment should be given to a thief, a murderer, someone who does damage? A person is responsible for the safekeeping of another’s possession and is neglectful; should he pay, and if so, how much? How should money be lent and how should it be collected? This long list contains relevant messages for every society and every culture.
In 1901, a delegation of French researchers conducting archeological excavations in Iran discovered a large stone stele etched with laws legislated by King Hammurabi of Babylon in the 18th century BCE, centuries before Ma’amad Har Sinai, which took place at the beginning of the 14th century BCE. (This stele is exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris.) After the text was deciphered, the researchers were amazed to discover great resemblance between the laws of Hammurabi and the laws of the Torah, specifically the social laws written in Mishpatim. Many books and articles have been written in an attempt to understand the connection between these two collections of laws, but as the research advanced, the researchers found fundamental differences between the two sets of laws. One difference conveys a clear-cut Jewish value: equality.
For example, Hammurabi wrote the following law: If a man destroys another man’s eye, they will destroy his eye. If he broke the bone of another, they will break his bone. If he destroys the eye of a person from a lower class or broke the bone of someone from the lower class, he will pay one portion of money.” (Sections 196-198) However, in the Torah we find a similar law with an essential difference: “But if there is a fatality, you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” (Exodus 21:23-24) Generations of Jewish sages explained that the Torah meant monetary compensation for the damage and not physical punishment. But for our purposes, it makes no difference. Hammurabi’s law contained a noticeable disadvantage: the difference between someone of a higher class and someone of a lower class vis-à-vis his punishment.
As far as the Torah is concerned, there is no difference in class. All men were created in the image of God and their rights are the same.
In this case, as in many others, scientific research turns our attention to different emphases. Man can read the Torah again and again and not notice that it wages a stubborn war against huge cultures among which the People of Israel resided for many years. In contrast to all people who lived in a reality dictated by a caste system and inflexible social classes, Judaism never developed classes like these, and this is not coincidental. This is the influence of Torah values that trickled down into the hearts of Jews. So much so that the first Jewish legal codex, the Mishna, determined that “a learned bastard [person born of an illegitimate relationship] and a boorish high priest – the bastard comes before the priest.”
(Mishna, Horiyut 3:8) A person could be a priest, and even a kohen gadol – a high priest serving in the Temple – but ultimately a person is valued according to his investment, according to his efforts, and not according to random social classifications.
Humanity took a long time until it internalized this value, and we still have a long way to go until we reach an ideal state. If we remember to look at the ancient signpost, in the Torah we have been studying already for 3,300 years, there is hope that we will reach the yearned-for goal: infinite respect for every person.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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