Parashat Mishpatim: The laws of love

Judaism has often been called (derogatorily) a religion of law, but the truth is that it gave the world the great idea of a God of love.

"Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them. If you buy a Hebrew slave..." (Exodus 18:1-2). Judaism has often been called (derogatorily) a religion of law, but the truth is that it gave the world the great idea of a God of love. It is this redeeming God who created every human being in His image and displayed to all the nations His desire for everyone to be free. Yes, our Bible presents a legal system and commands the Israelites to follow it "for your good." But the purpose of the law is to bring us close to the God of love, to create a more perfect society. It is as Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik declared concerning Tractate Shabbat: "It is a book of many laws, even minutiae of details, but the sum total of these legalisms is a day - the Sabbath - which is wholly poetry and song." With this in mind, it is important to study this week's biblical reading of Mishpatim. I will ask legalistic questions about the order of the text, but what I hope will emerge is a ringing declaration concerning the inalienable rights of a human being. Our portion is a continuation of the Decalogue - specifically of the ethics and morality governing interpersonal relationships - but in an order that seems to lack rhyme or reason. The reading opens with the laws relating to a Hebrew servant. It then goes on to catalog the penalties for acts of murder - willful as well as accidental - for kidnapping, for striking or cursing one's parents, for killing a servant, for causing a miscarriage, for damaging a servant's organ or limb (Exodus 21:1-28). The text then goes on to delineate the laws of damage done by one's property (one's ox, one's open pit) and then the damage done by an individual who steals someone else's ox or sheep. The Bible then returns to consider damage done by someone's animal, and the case of stealing an object which one was entrusted to guard. That section concludes with one's responsibility for damages done to an object which one borrowed - the segment known as "guardians." A close reading of these verses (Exodus 21:1-22:1) reveals serious questions as to their logical order (or lack thereof). If the text following the discussion of servitude begins with human beings who murder or damage - and therefore a man who steals another (a kidnapper) is included in this list (Exodus 21:16) - why does the text wait until many verses later to include the case of an individual who steals an animal, which is preceded by a law concerning damage wrought by oxen (Exodus 21:37)? And then the Bible continues to delineate animals who do damage, only afterward returning to a thief who steals the silver or vessels he had promised to guard (Exodus 22:6). Why not group all cases of stealing together? And why do the laws of damages begin with the laws of a hired laborer? In his study of Mishpatim, Elhanan Samet demonstrates that the order of the groupings becomes clear when we realize that the laws are catalogued in accordance with the severity of damage done to the victim rather than to the status of the assailant. Hence the first category opens with crimes by humans against humans, from murder to kidnapping to maiming. This category would also include the case of an ox who kills a human being, since the owner of the ox is guilty of manslaughter and must make restitution with "the redemption [value] of his life" (21:29). These are all human victims! The next category includes damage done to animals, and therefore the theft of an animal fits in here. And the last category deals with damage done to inanimate objects, so we conclude with an individual who steals the silver or vessels he was given to guard (Exodus 22:6). The introduction to all these laws is the law of servitude: Our Bible utilizes the term eved, which in Egypt meant "slave," but here the Torah transforms it from within to mean an indentured laborer, "contracted" out for a limited number of years for non-servile tasks. Remember that the very first of the Ten Commandments declares: "I am the Lord who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage..." How fitting it is that the first group of laws following the Decalogue replaces the concept of slavery with hired labor! God's abhorrence of slavery is a direct corollary of His having created every human being in His image (Gen. 1:27), with the inherent right to be free. And if a human being is inviolate, he must not be unjustifiably murdered, maimed or robbed. Hence the first category of damages following the laws of the hired laborer emphasize the fact that one human being dare not violate another. What follows is the prohibition against damaging another person's livestock, and finally damaging another's inanimate possessions. What appeared at first to border on legalistic casuistry now emerges as a powerful declaration of a biblical truth: Every human being must be seen as an end unto him/herself, and not as a means to someone else's end. The Canaanite slave is a category in Jewish law which we will discuss at another opportunity. It is instructive nevertheless to study the final words of Maimonides in his Mishne Torah, Laws of Slaves (9,8): "The trait of piety and the way of wisdom teach that an individual must be merciful and pursue righteousness so that he not place a heavy yoke on his [Canaanite] slave and not cause him anguish... he must eat whatever the householders eat... he may not be humiliated by hand or by words... but must be addressed gently, with his complaints listened to... 'Did not He who made me in my mother's belly make him? Did not [God] form us both in the womb?' [Job 31:15]." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.