This week’s portion focuses on laws. We can be proud of the ways in which our early ancestors began encoding practices that sought to ensure fairness and justice. We can celebrate the laws that were intended to promote justice, even while we keep in mind the balance that justice during the biblical times might be different from justice today. Rules for how to treat women, slaves, etc. make clear that there was an intention to try to limit suffering, but no intention towards challenging the inherent hierarchies of society. Mishpatim details the “measure for measure” laws: “the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” While this is not progressive justice as we understand it today, it is important to understand that this code ensured some sense of consequences for one’s actions – even in spite of how powerful someone was. It is important that the measure for measure laws follow a lengthy discussion about the treatment of slaves, because what is implies is that all people, regardless of social position, are entitled to justice and, by the same token, all people are subject to the same sets of moral laws and practices. All are deserving of fairness and all are accountable.
Rashi believed that even though “an eye for an eye” appears to suggest that literally the punishment be causing the same injury to the guilty as the guilty did to the innocent, that rather each of these things be assigned value. Rashi notes the importance of work and so suggests that injuries that prevent a person from working should be compensated monetarily. So too, a taken eye should be paid for because it would prevent the person from earning a wage. These legal sections were of great interest to the debaters of the Mishnah (oral law), who sought to solidify legal codes based on the rules in this section (and others), and to Rashi who sought the “plain sense” or “pshat” meaning of the Torah and found much to work with in sections like these that move from plot- and character-driven narrative to law. The JPS commentators note that the legal codes emerging here resemble in many ways the code of Hammurabi in Babylonian law. This was a period in which law was being taught to the people as a whole for the first time, and also codified so that legal practice could be made consistent.
The next section of the parshah includes religious laws. It is important to realize that religious laws, particularly those that are meant to foster monotheism, are embedded in other legal rules. Many contemporary religious leaders argue that organized religion is the vehicle through which people learn morality; that because moral codes are deemed to be commanded by God, people follow them (this is a fear-based morality. I avoid doing bad things because I want to avoid punishment. This is not quite the same as doing good for the sake of good). That argument becomes harder and harder to justify when we see so many examples of “devout” people doing terrible things – often in the name of the very God and religion who are supposed to be the catalyst and impetus for moral and ethical behaviour. We also see many non-believing, secular and Humanistic people (Jewish and non-Jewish) assuming responsibility for ethical behaviour because, in the absence of a deity, we are the only ones who can promote and enact justice and fairness in our world. What we see evidenced in this Torah portion is the way in which the connection between monotheistic belief and morality has been fused through text.
In this parshah we also have the rules for the shmita, the "release" of the land. The text tells the people to sow land for six years but in the seventh year to let it lie fallow. While this does not seem like the biggest deal in terms of the laws set forth here, it reminds us of the seven years of feast and famine in the Joseph story. The people have learned that in order to keep the earth fertile and to stave off hunger, that rotating fallow fields made sense. Jewish environmentalism points to textual moments like this in a celebration of the ways in which our early ancestors understood the symbiosis between a healthy earth and a healthy people. This year is the year of the shmita and many Jews have taken this year as a year of rest and reflection. What can we "release," or let go of that makes us worry or stress? How can we find more ways to take breaks, whether by enjoying Shabbat or other times of quiet? The shmita reminds us that humans are part of the natural cycle whereby productivity is enabled by rest.
The symbiosis between peoples is paramount too. The text says: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" and “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Any repetition such as this may suggest a fusing together of different versions of the text. But there are other interpretive possibilities. The JPS editors note “This verse may be repeated here because strangers, who lacked kin to protect their rights, are at a disadvantage in courts composed of local or tribal elders.” What is fascinating is that the Exodus story, just told a few chapters back, is now being used to inculcate a sense of moral responsibility in the people. The Torah is comprised of narrative and law and we see how they mutually reinforce one another in the text.
This parshah also mentions three festivals: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (what we call Passover), the Feast of the Harvest (what we call Sukkot), and the Feast of Ingathering (what we call Shavuot). These festivals are mentioned again in Leviticus and Deuteronomy where we get more detail about how they are to be celebrated. But here we see evidence that these are some of the earliest Jewish practices. We also see evidence that the celebration and marking of Jewish festivals is connected with the laws that precede and follow this chapter. The law and the cultural practices become bound up in what we call Judaism; they are inextricable from each other during the time of the formation of our people as a people.
The laws of Kashrut, the dietary restrictions, are also detailed here, and also highlight how the formation of the law led to the formation of a people. Eating in a specific way, ensuring that people eat with only those in their same group, was a very concrete way to create and keep the people. Many Jews today still maintain that they keep kosher for the reason that it reminds them of their Jewishness in the quotidian and necessary decisions and acts around food. There are many of us Jews who do not keep kosher, for there are other markers of culture and peoplehood that may be more valuable or relevant to our own lives (and other measures for ethical eating whether fair trade, environmentally sustainable, vegetarian, etc.), the point here is that the text shows us the logic and strategy behind the creation of the Jewish people, and as our legacy this is of interest.
The portion ends with a departure from the laws and a return to narrative. Moses, Aaron and the other “elders of Israel” ascending up the mountain. The text says “they saw the God of Israel: under His feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity” (24. 9 – 10). Commentators have had to wrestle with the contradictions inherent in these lines. On the one hand, God is not supposed to be visible, and on the other the text, if divinely written/inspired, must be true. So how do Moses and the others “see” God? Commentators explain that the sapphire-like pavement “under God’s feet” was above them, so they “saw” something like a reflection of God refracted through this pavement-like blueness. Thus God was visible, but obscured. Further commentators extrapolate from this explanation that this is why the sky is blue – God is above us but obscured by the sapphire-like pavement that serves as the barrier between us. The bible and such commentaries were written before we had the scientific means to understand much of our natural world. We have an evolved understanding of nature now, just as we have an evolved sense of justice and fairness, yet the text provides us with insight into how our early ancestors made sense of these big questions.