Parashat Mishpatim / פרשת מִּשְׁפָּטִים
Read in the Diaspora on 13 February 2021 (1 Adar 5781).
Parashat Mishpatim is the 18th weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading.
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18
“Mishpatim” (Ordinances/Judgements/Rules) continues the enumerating of mitzvot after the giving of the Ten Commandments. The first ordinance that is addressed is the treatment of the slave. Those who are serving a Jewish master either because they are poor and need to earn money to restart their lives or a thief paying off a penalty are the most vulnerable and the bottom rung of the socioeconomic scale. They have to be treated with respect. If the master maims them in some way, they earn their freedom immediately.
Some of the sages say that the other laws discussed follow the tenth commandment about coveting their fellow’s belongings. Rather than work hard and earn more money to purchase things, they will instead steal. The laws discuss the penalties of replacing what they stole plus double or paying back the value.
The portion, in that context, addresses lex talionis, or the law of retribution. This is “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life”. The commentary is very explicit is stating that this is not to be taken literally, unlike the Code of Hammurabi. Since this law in embedded within verses that discuss compensation based on value of goods stolen, for example, it is the value of the loss of function is assessed, and that is the penalty.
The only exception is when someone lays in wait and murders someone. In that case, and only that case, is life for life taken literally. As such, when all other avenues to exonerate the person are exhausted and the person is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the sentence is carried out.
This portion also expands on the ninth commandment of bearing false witness. The Torah tells us we are also not to gossip or join with others in the commission of spreading falsehoods. People appearing before a court are to be treated equally, without considering whether they are rich or poor, or have status.
Other notable mishpatim that are included in this portion are: The prohibition against cooking meat with milk and the mitzvah of prayer.
Hashem promises to bring the people of Israel to the Holy Land, and warns them against the pagan ways of its current people. Finally, the people of Israel proclaim, “We will do and we will hear all that G‑d commands us.” Moses goes up Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the Torah from G-d and leaves Aaron and Hur in charge of the camp during his absence. The portion describes the three times that Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to receive the law. This, by the way, is why there are three steps up to the bema in our sanctuary and why we take three steps back and then three steps forward before the individual recitation of the Amidah.