Sign In Forgot Password

Mishpatim 5781 ~ Feb. 12

The Torah is not simply a book of theology, nor is it solely a book of history.  Once the Children of Israel complete receiving the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Commandments, at Mt. Sinai, they are now presented with chapters of legal treatise. Within this code of mishpatim, rules, we find statutes related to the dignity of a Hebrew slave that every human being is entitled to for themselves, their families and their belongings. (A note, the concept of the Hebrew slave in the Torah was not our current notion. A Hebrew slave was one who had for whatever reason become financially destitute and was unable to pay off a debt. Another individual would pay off that debt with an understanding that, in return, the Hebrew slave would work for that individual to pay off that debt for up to seven years.)

Amongst these laws are the question of capital punishment, laws related to borrowing and safekeeping, the rights of women, and the protection of one’s property. Many of us, for example, are aware that the rabbis were rather specific on the law of an eye for an eye that is found in the Torah. They were opposed to the actual physical punishment and explained why such a law, when understood, was specifically intended to require monetary compensation. The Talmud and later sources worked around the literal words by stating how it would be impossible to exact the precise punishment, since one could not recreate the injury in its exactness, not only in measure, but in pain and sight loss consequences.

This week’s Torah reading discusses capital punishment.  The rabbis were so opposed to taking another’s life, that it is said that if they actually carried out such a punishment once in seventy years, they were considered a murderous court. During capital punishment proceeding, there were so many situational realities that had to be confirmed that it was almost impossible to actually carry out such a punishment. Our Congregation Beth El friend and former Cantor, Michael Zoosman, continues to work tirelessly on behalf of those on death row, with a goal of halting executions as a form of punishment.  The Washington Post recently reported on the case of Lendell Lee, who was put to death in 2017. According to the Innocence Project, DNA might prove that the courts may have put to death an innocent man. 

On the other hand, the rabbis were quite specific in instances where something was clear cut. One example is theft. In such an instance the convicted thief was required to pay back five times the amount of the value of the item taken.

The deliberations of the rabbis on damage to property and other legal matters take up eight tractates or volumes of discussion in the Talmud.  As I taught my students at the Solomon Schechter Academy just yesterday, many of the situations can be related to today. We talked about the case of shoveling snow on one’s sidewalk and driveway. No, the Talmud does not discuss snow shoveling. We could relate the responsibility of the homeowner to that of the individual who purposefully leaves a concoction of straw and manure on the street and someone trips on it and is injured. We might use the same laws to discuss whose fault is it in a car accident: “A” bumps into “B”’s car that is parked at the side of the street or is stopped at an intersection, waiting to make a left turn. We could use the Torah’s discussion on animals whose natural instinct is to gore to discuss the consequences of many other vehicular laws of the road.

One final observation from this week: the Torah understands that animals behave based totally on instinct. If an ox gores for a first time, its owner is warned of the consequences of a second incident. On the other hand, the Talmud suggests that adam muad l’olam “humans are warned from the beginning.” (Bava Kamma 2:6).  Humans are required to protect others from danger right from get-go.  Wearing a mask properly, driving safely down the road, getting vaccinated and keeping social distanced may be just a few examples.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782