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Parashat Mishpatim 5779 — 02/02/2019

Parashat Mishpatim 5779 — 02/02/2019

Shemot 21:1-24:18

Why does the Torah condone slavery? Why on earth would Gd allow this nation of former slaves to themselves own slaves? Why would the nation want to own slaves to begin with? After analyzing several approaches, R. Goldin summarizes:

Based on our analysis, the institution of slavery within the Jewish nation remains dependent upon the existence of such slavery outside the nation. In a world where such cruelty is unknown, these laws will have little or no practical application.
With intricate care and concern, the Torah thus mandates a humane approach to an inhumane practice for as long as necessary.

In other words, these Torah laws appear to be specific to a particular social structure, at least in their plain meaning. Certainly one can interpret the verses homiletically as well and derive some more general lessons, but as stated, according to the majority of commentators, the laws regarding the treatment of slaves mainly apply to a society where owning slaves was the rule, rather than the exception.

This is not the only case where Torah laws seem to apply only in a particular cultural context. Rambam explains the entire institution of sacrifices in a similar manner. In a world where the only connection to the divine was through sacrificial ritual (I left divine in lower case on purpose, because the rest of the world was steeped in idolatry, not connection to the Divine), Gd conceded to the Israelites’ needs and provided sacrificial rituals for various purposes – atonement, thanksgiving, expression of love for Gd. This is not a universally held view – Ramban vehemently disagrees, for example, but it is a view along the lines of our discussion of the laws of slavery. Even Ramban opines that the garments of the Kohen Gadol reflected the styles of royalty in the time when Torah was given.

Other examples that are more challenging occur when the language of Torah is parallel to texts dated before the Torah was given. Was Torah not only a product of its time and place and cultural milieu, but plagiarized as well?!

The real problem here is that on one level we are told that Torah is the timeless utterance of Gd, given to Moshe Rabbeinu at Mt. Sinai and valid for all time. Yet on another level we read it as the story of human beings who lived at a certain time and place and in a certain cultural context. It seems that Torah can’t really be both. Here’s what R. Goldin says:

What balance should be struck between eternality and temporal context when it comes to general study of the Torah text? What is the relationship between the timelessness of the text and the particular time and world into which it was given?

Our tradition clearly maintains both the divine origin and the eternal applicability of the Torah. The Torah is Gd’s word designed to be relevant to all times and places.

At the same time, however, we cannot deny that the Torah was revealed to a specific people in a specific era. Clearly, God spoke to the Israelites within the context of their times as He laid out His eternal messages.

Where do we draw the line, looking back, millennia later?

Can the argument of temporal context be used, as we have suggested, as the basis for an approach to the institution of Canaanite slavery? If so, where and when else can such arguments be applied? Can issues of context be raised without undermining the timeless nature of the Torah? …

Both of these authorities [RAR: Rambam and Ramban], however, while accepting the possible contextual origin of these phenomena, maintain that, once decreed, they become everlasting. The Rambam clearly speaks of a return to sacrifices in messianic times and, in fact, dedicates a great deal of text to laws concerning the rituals of korbanot. The Ramban, likewise, fully recognizes the eternal nature of the priestly garments plainly indicated within the Torah text itself.

Clearly, temporal context and perpetual legacy should both be considered as we continue to study the Torah text. The beauty of the text lies in its unique ability to blend the ancient with the timeless. The balance created by these two forces helps us understand both the origin and complex nature of Gd’s word.

This question is of great importance, as many of those whose stock in trade is analyzing Biblical texts from a cultural and philological point of view adopt this approach as a means to discredit Torah’s Divine origin. I’d like therefore to suggest an approach that may help resolve this tension.
Our Sages tell us that Torah is the blueprint of creation: “Gd looked in the Torah and created.” And we discussed earlier, in considering the last verse in parashat Naso, that Torah is “Gd speaking to Himself,” with Moses listening in (and presumably taking notes!). Now Gd’s speaking to Himself is clearly an eternal process. Gd transcends time and space and so does His creative activity: He renews in His goodness every day the work of Creation. Torah therefore also transcends space and time.

There is a principle in Rabbinic exegesis however that Torah speaks in human language. In our current state of spiritual awareness, we cannot even begin to comprehend the language of creation. Therefore, perhaps we can say that Gd had to take the Absolute Torah and project it, or compress it, or abridge it to the point that it was comprehensible to human beings. Moshe Rabbeinu’s cognition may have been perfect and complete, but it may not have been a cognition that he was going to be able to pass on to the nation, and to the world through us. Alternatively, the spiritual level of the nation at the time of the Revelation may have clouded the atmosphere to the point that Moshe’s cognition was partially obscured.

The Absolute Torah, which resides with Gd, the blueprint of creation, is indeed timeless and eternal. Some of that eternal nature shines through the projection that we have – the laws of Torah are immutable, even if they were colored by the language and customs of the time and place in which it was given. When Mashiach comes and we are all raised to the highest level of spiritual clarity, the Absolute Torah will be clear to everyone and life will be lived Absolutely in accord with Gd’s Will, may it happen speedily in our day!

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Mishpatim

“Mishpatim” means “laws” In this parshah, Gd gives many laws: The most important is “And you shall worship the Lord, your God, and He will bless your food and your drink, and I will remove illness from your midst.”

How are we to know that we are doing well in our worship?

Joy in eating and drinking is a sign that we are doing well and illness is a sign that we are lax in our worship.

Gd gives 53 laws in this parshah—30 positive mitzvoth and 23 prohibitions.

Moses tells the laws to the people and they say, “All that the Lord has commanded we will do”!

These 53 mitzvot are details in our worship of Gd—so worship is not just saying a blessing, praising Gd, but acting in daily life, in and out of formal services, according to Gd’s Will—as best we can. The mitzvahs in this parshah illustrate in many ways how we can worship Gd by “loving our neighbor as our self”—as our Self.

Our ancestors heard Gd speak on Mt Sinai/Mount Horeb (there is disagreement as to whether this is one place or two separate places, whether the Ten Utterances/Words/Commandments were given out on Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb) and they heard Him speak through Moses which He does also in this parshah. This is a sign that despite such faults as worshipping the Golden Calf, our ancestors were quite good in their worship. They must have been doing quite well, generally, in performing the mitzvot—doing what should be done, avoiding what should not.

Some of these laws though clearly moral seem very secular: laws about slaves, homicide, insults, assault, crops. Only a few of the laws pertain to duty to Gd.

How are we to know in our time that in our daily life we are worshipping Gd and not just taking care of our individual selves, families, property?

Most of the mitzvot in this parshah are things that good people everywhere learn from their parents and their culture but also there are specific details for which regular reading of Torah and studying Torah can be helpful so that we become more and more attentive to the details of a good life, a life of worship: an example is offering first fruits to Gd. Unless we’re farmers or gardeners we have to think about what this means in our life. It could be symbolic of offering some part of any money we receive to Gd or to charity. It could mean that the first fruit of any thought we think we need to align with what we know of what Gd wants.

Worshipping Gd is an ongoing learning experience: Joy in our life is a sign we are getting better.

And we can open our awareness to some sense of this Joy as Totality, to become increasingly aware that Joy is Gd and sharing Joy is sharing Gd, definitely Loving.

Opening ourselves to Joy and Love is opening our awareness to Totality, the Primordial Oneness within which everything and everyone exists as an impulse, a flow—as ripples are the ocean flowing within itself.

Because this is reality, our sense of Gd in this way is a real taste and by devoting ourselves to the Wholeness through the taste we define our true Nature as this Oneness, we commit ourselves to set this as the Goal of our life, the only way our life can be fulfilled.

Through this commitment, our ancestors worshipped and we worship. Whatever words we recite in service and in prayer have within our awareness the dedication only to One and to nothing less and whatever acts we perform outside of formal religious service are still service, acts dedicated to Totality..

We settle for no partial value: We accept nothing less than Totality—Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omni-Joyful, Omni-Loving, Totality, All-in-All, nothing left out.

Through this commitment we worship and through this commitment we grow in appreciating every aspect of life as truly Gd, we grow in our ability to love every detail of life as our Self, we grow in our ability to “love Gd with all our heart and soul”. We grow in fulfillment, restoring awareness of Oneness within our self and everywhere and we grow in the extent to which this Fulfillment is shared, experienced by everyone and every thing, every where and every when.

This is a life worth living. Of the various laws of this parshah, Mishpatim, some seemingly secular and some clearly sacred, are aids in living this life and finding that Fulfillment always Is, never is missing, always Is.

Baruch HaShem