Mishpatim – BAC- Feb. 10, 2024

Last week, many of us heard the 10 Commandments being read. These

commandments came at the end of weeks of build up as we learned of

our people gaining their freedom from Egyptian bondage with all the

plagues and miracles that led up to that big moment on Mt. Sinai and the

receiving of those 10 Commandments.

I’m talking high drama here. Thunder…lightning…voices of

revelation!! Big stuff…dramatic…and this week’s reading is Mishpatim

in which we’re given the plodding specificity of scores of civil and

religious laws. We go from big narrative storytelling to rather boring

lists of laws and instructions.

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses describes going from Yitro to Mishpatim as

coming down the mountain with a real thud!

Gone are the salacious family stories of Genesis and the dramatic

national birth story of exodus. Starting with this week’s Parsha, sitting in

synagogue week after week, one can hear yawns all around.

What happened to the joy of sheer story? Why do we move from

aggadah (narrative) to halachah (law)?

What do you think of this? After all the suffering of the Israelites in

Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not

the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the

rules detailing the treatment of a slave. Slavery as an institution is

simply presumed by the text. And you and I as Jews have to defend this!

After all those years enslaved…after witnessing the plagues…after

passing through the Red Sea to escape slavery,… why in the world are

the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?

Smarter people than me have offered us some explanations which I’m

happy to pass along to you.

Mishpatim begins with the following law: (Ex. 21:2) “When you acquire

a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go


In other words, you can own a slave, but after seven years, you must set

that slave free. You were a slave, and now you will be a master. And as

a master you must liberate. As God liberated you, so must you set your

slave free.

Until this point in the text, we are told a story. We, you and me, are

watching these events happen to others. But, where story becomes law,

we are told how to live our lives. We are supremely implicated. The

Torah shifts from narrative to law.

The very first law captures the story that the Israelites had just

experienced, and yet, at the same point tells them to take control of that

narrative and perform it themselves – perform exodus, perform

liberation. You may be master, but you must become liberators. Every

seven years.

For the rest of the Torah, it’s about who WE are! Sure, there’s a little

story about spies, and a rebellion by Korach, and the zealousness of

Pinchas, but mainly folks, it’s about what laws, both civil and moral, are

we, as a people, going to define ourselves by.

Now that we’re free, how if at all, are we going to restrict some of our

actions to form a cohesion as an identifiable people, the Jewish people,

uniquely individual, a light unto the nation?

Now that we’re through with the stories, by what measures are we to

define ourselves?

As it was a challenge before us, so it is our challenge today.

Who are we as Jews?

Why do we exist?

Is it still important or relevant to separate ourselves in even minor ways

from our surrounding cultures?

That’s not a narrative but is certainly a challenge for the liberated.

Where do we, as Jews, go from here?

What are we holding onto that is so dear to us?

We’ve heard the stories.

Where do we go from here?

You and I, we think we’re pretty well educated. We keep up with news

events, we read a newspaper, watch news on TV.

In viewing nightly video reports, we see how other people seem to

misbehave badly. We always seem to be looking for someone who’s

been missing for several days, hearing of explosions that kill and maim

scores of people, or watching our celebrities from Bill Cosby to Jeff

Bezos living predatory and adulterous lives.

You have to wonder, where are the basic values today that are taught by

the Torah? 

I submit for your consideration, that each of us decides what Torah

values we choose to embrace in our lifestyles and which to ignore.

Mishpatim asks us to think about our core values. How do we interact

with other people?

We’re all trying to understand the place of G-d in our lives.

From this pulpit, I’ve talked about deeds-based religion rather than

Judaism being a faith-based religion.

Just looking at the text in Mishpatim, we can get clues as to how we

should live… what values we should maintain.

Under what conditions should capital punishment be enforced?

What consequences should there be when a death occurs but


What punishment should there be for kidnapping?

What happens if two men fight and a pregnant woman gets pushed and

she has a miscarriage? What should be the penalty?

What if you own a work animal in your barn, in this case let’s say an ox,

and the animal goes on a rampage and kills a human being? Is the owner

of that animal to be held responsible?

What should be our involvement with the disadvantaged in our society?

In Chapter 23 of today’s parsha, we get laws about how we are to treat

our enemies. Do we think we can rely on Hamas to treat our hostages

with any degree of human kindness?

My point here, my friends, is that the world you and I are living in is

dealing with many of the very same issues our people dealt with in

biblical times.

In Russia and the Ukraine, they’re dealing with who controls what land.

And of course, in the Middle East, it’s all about the land,

notwithstanding the Balfour Declaration, in which England was given

the right to apportion the land that is now the State of Israel. There are

millions of people trying to refute the legitimate establishment of the 

State of Israel and want that little sliver of land back, even though the

Muslim world controls the land of most of the Middle East and all of

northern Africa.

Laws mean nothing if the people don’t adhere to them.

Are we not seeing that today when illegal migrant people can get away

with attacking police officers, and do so with no fear of consequences.

Mishpatim is very clear, my friends.

You can’t have a society without laws.

You can’t have a society if there are no consequences to breaking those

laws. None of us can sleep soundly when there is no order in our world.

We can’t open up a business.

Case in point… Nordstroms, and just this week, a Walgreens, that had to

shut its doors, cutting off needed supplies to law abiding citizens,

because there is rampant shoplifting and defiant looting of retail stores.

Who loses when there is chaos?

We’re afraid to let our kids play out on the street. When I was growing

up, we were outside until dark! We freely played stickball, Johhny on

the Pony, football in the streets or on open lots, we rode our bikes pretty

much anywhere with no fear of unwarranted attacks.

The frail elderly are basically homebound.

Mishpatim clearly tells us that we Jews, if no one else, must demonstrate

by our high values, that we are going to adhere to laws that are to all of

our mutual benefits.

We elect representatives to constantly review the laws we live under to

determine if they need to be updated.

If it weren’t for our Rabbinic sages, for instance, we’d be taking out

someone’s eye if they happened to have caused blindness to someone

instead of the more civilized approach of mandating equivalent financial

reparations to the victim or even incarceration for the perpetrator.

The early forgers of the Constitution of the United States were well

versed in what they called the “Old Testament”, the Five Books of

Moses. Many laws on the books in our country plainly get their

derivation from Parshat Mishpatim.

A thorough reading of Mishpatim will give all of us a handle on how we

should react to events of the day that we see all the time on our TVs.

The Jewish people are about creating a just society but one that has a

vehicle by which mercy can have a place.

And isn’t that exactly how we describe G-d? 

He is a G-d of justice but also, a G-d of mercy.

It is up to you and me to insure that there is a proper balance as we each

try to live… B’tzelem Elohim…in the image of G-d.

Shabbat Shalom