Mishpatim (Rachel Hayward)

Feb. 6, 2016 by Rachel Hayward

This week’s parasha Mishpatim, which means laws or ordinances, outlines tort and civil law for the Jewish people. The parasha follows the giving of the ten commandments, and the establishment of a judicial system by Moshe’s father in-law Yitro. It provides details on how to implement the 10 commandments and how the judges should rule.

This parasha sets up a system of governance, establishing rules and laws. In essence, it formalizes this group of disparate Jewish tribes into a society.

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two 17th century English political theorists and philosophers give differing explanations as to why we form societies. Hobbes believes that man is inherently evil and beast-like, and that society is what reins us in and civilizes us. We agree to give up some of our freedoms and right to act as we please, in exchange for protections. I will no longer murder you, but now I am protected from your murdering me. Society gives repercussions for our bad actions, thus forcing us to keep our animalistic tendencies in check.

Locke on the other hand, thinks people start off as a Tabula Rasa, a blank slate. People are neither inherently good nor bad, but become what they are taught. He believes more in nurture and less in nature. Therefore, a benevolent and just society can teach us skills and rights; it can teach us ethics and morality, and it can protect these values. We have the potential to learn how to be good through society; to not be animals who refrain from biting because of fear of a stick, but rather, we can be taught to be more than animals, we can be taught to be human.

Both Hobbes and Locke say that we accept a social contract- that we agree to follow certain rules so that we can be a part of a community and a society. Here in this parasha the Jewish people are engaging in a social contract with God. When Moshe finishes reciting all these laws to the Jewish people, they immediately say “Na-ah-seh v’ni-shma” (24:7), “we will do and we will hear,” we will accept all of Hashem’s rules and live in God’s society.

Hobbes would look at this and say that we are agreeing to give up our rights to worship other gods, to murder and seduce, to charge our neighbors interest on loans, to eat milk and meat together, for God’s promise of protection and success if we abide by his rules. God says in this parasha that if we do what is commanded, then “I shall be the enemy of your enemies and persecute your persecutors” (23:22).  And that if we worship God that God will “bless your bread and your water, and shall remove illness from your midst” (23:25).

Locke would see this contract with God as an opportunity for us to learn great ethics and morals.  There is a wealth and breadth of lessons conveyed in Mishpatim. The parasha starts off talking about the rights of slaves, the lowest ranked people in society. Furthermore, it does not differentiate between the value of lives based upon casts- according to the this parasha, a life is a life. Even Hammurabi’s famous codes differentiated between classes.

The parasha cautions us against being careless lest we harm others, saying if we know we have a dangerous animal and it gores someone, or if we dig a pit and abandon it and someone falls in, we are responsible. These laws also tell us that we must be kind to strangers, for we were once strangers, and that we have an obligation to not cause pain to widows and orphans. They tell us how to be humane lenders, returning garments given as collateral before nightfall, so the borrower will not be cold. The parasha also makes sure to differentiate between misdeeds that were intentional and ones that were accidental: it distinguishes between manslaughter and murder, between one whose animal hurt someone for the first time and one that habitually gored people.

Hobbes and Locke aside, I am personally impressed by some of these laws being very much ahead of their time, given the period in which they were delivered. In particular, all the rights and protections allotted to women.

  • Maidservants are protected under the same rules as manservants
  • If a man seduces a virgin, he must either offer to marry her or pay out the amount he would have given for a marriage contract.
  • A young woman whose father sells her, cannot be sold to a stranger if the original buyer does not like her. Or, if that man takes other women, that first girl cannot receive less food or clothing.
  • The parasha also mentions how a person must act respectfully to both his Father and Mother.

While some of these rules feel archaic given our current frame of reference, they were really progressive in their time. In biblical times, when women did not have the same positions of power as men, the establishment of laws protecting their rights is very impressive.

Furthermore, many of these rules are still very much applicable today in our modern world: Property damage settlements, rulings on manslaughter vs murder, how to handle corporate thievery, policies towards strangers, orphans and widows in terms of refugees. The enduring relevance of these laws, as well as the insight into human nature is amazing.

To conclude, when taking this Parasha and its ordinances to mind, think of our social contract with God. Whether you’re on team Hobbes and or team Locke, whether you see these laws as being for our protection or our enlightenment, they encourage us to act more ethically towards each other, and to be better people.

Shabbat Shalom!