Laws forge a nation

The Almighty is always with them and close by, in the shape of the laws

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
LAWS ARE, by their nature, seemingly prosaic and workaday beasts. The Ten Commandments that made their noisy and showy debut in the previous Torah portion are gaudy outliers, preening themselves before their awestruck audience.
In Mishpatim though, we get to the rules and regulations that take care of the everyday stuff, or at any rate, the everyday stuff of agricultural societies over 3,000 years ago. Slave laborers and their freedom, oxen that toss and gore, the rustling of herds and burning of crops, vendettas turning violent, the protection of the rural poor – all these things find their expression here, and laws to respond to them.
Yet laws say more than appears in the dry text. They cope with problems that arise in the daily affairs of nations, and give insight into what things nations see as problems.
The topics above were problems for all peoples then. No wonder that other contemporary legal codes in the Near East have similar, parallel provisions.
But look at some of the other regulations. What lawgiver then, or now, would think that seeing one’s enemy’s livestock astray was a problem demanding a solution? And how can “afflicting” a widow or orphan, however undesirable, be resolved by a prohibition without recounting the forbidden ways of treating these people? And the style in which these laws are expressed is unusual. There is none of the passive, convoluted phraseology of the statute book.
The words are direct, urgent, and spoken to an imagined individual.
“You shall.” “You shall not.” Consequences, harsh consequences, for disobedience and wrongdoing, stud the text like thorns.
Moses is often known as the “lawgiver,” but here he is just the passive transmitter of laws from God, and stage manager of the covenant ceremonies. The people, not Moses, nor any other representative, publicly agree to the laws, and thus make them binding.
And it is this link between God, the laws and the individual Israelite that is the answer to a deeper, unspoken, problem.
Present-day laws aim at controlling overt, visible, definable behavior.
You kill someone? You pay a penalty for it. Laws that have tried to control behavior that is less public, or attempted to inculcate concepts of fairness through vague provisions, fall flat. If you fall short of the law’s expectations, who will know? You won’t be punished.
And Biblical laws indeed are mostly practical laws. But there are also what we may call aspirational laws too. They are ambitious, aiming to change human behavior for the better. You return your enemy’s livestock? Well, you may start talking to him and one thing leads to another, and he may not be your enemy any longer.
You wonder whether you are “afflicting” a widow or an orphan? The only way of finding out is to imagine yourself in their place: how would you feel if you were subjected to the treatment you have just meted out to them? Empathy is born.
The principle is simple. Practical laws command obedience; they cannot promote social solidarity, let alone nationhood. An existing society, with its common, customary assumptions born of tranquility and with perhaps centuries of history to draw on, can live nicely with such laws alone.
But Israelite society had yet to be forged as a nation from a collection of slaves united only by misery and vague memories of a richer past in another country. Aspirational laws were therefore also needed, with divine authority as their overt enforcer, an authority fresh from its triumph at the Exodus.
Which takes us to the last, least obvious problem that required a solution from the statutes. How long could divine authority serve as a credible back-up to these laws? We know that the Israelites were less than obedient through their 40 years in the wilderness, but there may have been a good reason for their fractiousness.
The deliverance from Egypt was all very well, but where was the Creator of the universe in the preceding centuries of slavery? As far as the Israelites knew, He might disappear again as quickly as He had come, abandoning them to the mercy of the desert. Powerful? Yes.
Reliable? Hmmm.
It was Moses who voiced an answer to this, toward the close of their wanderings “…when they [other nations] hear of all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there, that hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is whensoever we call upon him.”
The implication is clear. The Almighty is always with them and close by, in the shape of the laws. And they, both practical and aspirational, were already doing their work.
Did you see what Moses called the Israelites? A nation.