Thursday, February 16, 2023

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Mishpatim – Sh’mot (Exodus): 21- 24

 "This Parasha is extraordinarily rich in a variety of themes, and multiplicity of laws, judgments, and statutes governing every facet of human existence. This comprehensive legislation covers relations of man to their society, between members of the same community, between peoples, between man and man, man and his enemy, and even between man and the flora and fauna of his environment, not to mention the relationship with man to his Creator. The Torah therein regulates the life of the Hebrew person at work and at leisure, on Shabbat and festivals".[1] We will examine some of Parashat Mishpatim’s terms against the backdrop of this summary. Last week we noted that the Ten Words were presented in a progression, from the overriding theme of the relationship to the Creator, gradually breaking down into particulars (in human relationships, and finally to one’s own heart). This week the trend seems to go the other way. Thus, before the ‘national’ commandments regarding the times and seasons (in the land) – 23:10-19 - and the ‘big picture’ as described in 23:20-33, the people of Yisrael are presented with very detailed and specific instructions as to what is expected of a set-apart nation, even down to the individual.

"And these are the judgments which you shall put before them…" are the opening words of our Parasha.  The singular form of “mishpatim” (“judgments”) is “mishpat”, the root letters being sh.p/f.t (shin, pey, tet). Last week we noted that YHVH's instructions to His People were not to be defined simplistically as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts.'  “Mishpat” may be compared to last week's “chock” - "law" - which is also to “engrave", and to “pikudim” - "precepts" (a glimpse of which we had in Parashat Shmot,  in 3:16, where it appeared as the verb to “visit"). Likewise, “mishpat” also has a variety of meanings such as "just" (Deut. 32:4), and "justice" (Is. 16:5). In this Parasha “mishpat” is used several times as "arbitration" and "decision making" (21:31), as well as "legal right" (23:6) and "custom" (21:9). According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, this “word [which is] of broad meaning, is also to be understood as to “govern or rule". [2] Thus, although some of the “mishpatim” could be termed as "judgments" or “ordinances” in the stricter sense of the word, this judicial term is couched in a much larger social and spiritual framework, a framework that is rooted in YHVH's Torah, the latter (as already pointed out), being anything but a strictly official and legal codex.


Let us go back to our opening verse:  "And these are the judgments which you shall put before them".  Notice that Moshe is told to “put" or "place" the judgments before the Israelites. "Put", as used here, appears to be almost out of place, unless it is tied to some image such as we encounter in Ya’acov (James) 1:22-25: “…Become doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  Because if anyone is a hearer of the Word, and not a doer, this one is like a man studying his natural face in a mirror; for he studied himself and has gone away, and immediately he forgot of what kind he was. But the one looking into the perfect Torah of liberty, and continuing in it, this one not having become a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the word, this one will be blessed in his doing” (italics added).


Thus, the Torah, which is to reflect the new nature of the “am s'gula” (the “treasured People” as mentioned in last week’s Parashat Yitro), is likened to a mirror. "Placing the mishpatim before the people" becomes clear, therefore, especially when considering the Israelites' response last week: "All which YHVH has spoken we will do” (Ex. 19:8) and this week too (ref. 24:3). Incidentally, the same verb, "put"  -“sim” - is also used in Bamidbar (Numbers) 6:27, regarding the placing of the Priestly Blessing upon the Children of Yisrael (as well as in 6:26, where YHVH is said to “put” or “place” His peace on the recipients of this blessing).


These “mishpatim”, therefore, constitute one of the aspects reflecting and revealing the ‘new nature’ (and also ‘flesh’ and sin) of YHVH's special and holy people (ref. 22:31), which they see each time they look "into the perfect Torah of liberty". And what is it that they first see there? "When you buy a Hebrew slave (“eved” – “one who works”), he shall serve six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out free for nothing" (21:2). What could be more appropriate for the newly released slaves than to act with consideration and kindness toward their own brethren who will, in the future, meet with such a predicament? Is it any wonder then that, this is the first ruling they encounter as they look into the “mirror” which has been “placed before” them? Various dimensions of this topic are dealt with all the way through to 21:11. A variety of regulations ensue, mostly dealing with acts of violence, followed next by rules regarding damages caused specifically by one's livestock (chiefly oxen) to others.


Reparations for these damages proceed (chapter 22:1-17), leading to various moral and ethical issues and the treatment of the defenseless. But before we get to this point, let’s examine verses 5 and 6. The translation reads as follows: "If a man causes a field or vineyard to be grazed and lets loose his animal, and it feeds in another man's field... If a fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that stacked grain, standing grain, or the field is consumed, he who kindled the fire shall surely make restitution” (emphases added). Notice the words: causing (a field) to be grazed, animal, feeds, he who kindles fire. In Hebrew, all these verbs and nouns stem from a single root, (bet, ayin, resh) with its primary meaning being “to consume, burn, destroy”. But as is illustrated in our text, this term is ‘stretched’ further to include grazing (in a sense of “removal”) and even animals, from which it morphs into “brutishness”.  The latter meaning is then applied to the “fools” and ones “without sense” or “knowledge” (e.g., Ps. 94:6a; Pro. 12:1; Jer. 10:21a, being just a few examples). “Removal” (mostly of evil) is another usage of this term (e.g., Deut. 17:12; 19:13). This is a typical illustration of associative Hebraic thinking.


Let us now return to the “treatment of the defenseless”. In 22:21 we read: "You shall not torment an alien. You shall not oppress him, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt". The word here for "alien" is “ger”, from the root “gur” (g.u.r, gimmel, vav, resh), to “live, reside, dwell, or sojourn”. According to The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, "this root means to live among people who are not blood relatives… thus, the ‘ger’ was dependent on the hospitality that played an important role in the ancient Near East”. [2] Interestingly, the verb “gur” also means “dread, fear”. This illustrates the fact that being a stranger meant vulnerability, therefore requiring protection by the local inhabitants. Moreover, if the many repeated lessons of sojourning will not have been sufficiently learned, the Israelites may find themselves aliens all over again (e.g., Deut. 28: 63ff.), as YHVH would judge them for unrighteousness as He did the Egyptians, and even more strictly, because of the higher standards expected from them. Some examples of the way this word is used are as follows:


· Avraham sojourned in Egypt during the famine in the Land of Yisrael (Gen. 12:10).

· Lot was scornfully called a sojourner by the people of Sdom (ref. Gen. 19:9).

· Ya'acov described his stay with Lavan as that of a sojourner (ref. Gen. 32:4).

· Ya’acov’s sons defined their status in Egypt as that of sojourners (ref. Gen. 47:4).

· Hebrews 11:9,13 characterizes the Patriarchs as those who considered themselves pilgrims and aliens (not regarding themselves as members of this sin-ridden world).

· The Elohim of Yisrael is termed this way, when not welcome among His people (ref. Jer. 14:8).

· Finally, in the age to come the wolf will be the "protected citizen" of the lamb (Is. 11:6). [3]


The Torah’s cautions regarding all behavior towards the ‘stranger’ number no less than 36; more times than it deals with any other command![4] This fact powerfully speaks for itself. In 22:21 Yisrael is told to not “wrong or oppress“ the stranger, with the latter verb being “lo’chetz” ( lamed, chet tzadi) - literally “to restrict, squeeze”. YHVH used this very term when He was responding to Yisrael’s cry in Egypt: “I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them” (Ex. 3:9 italics added). This kind of repetition puts Yisrael ‘on the spot’ as to their treatment of the alien/stranger.  A similar theme is reiterated in 23:9, with the addition, “…you know [understand] the soul of an alien since you were aliens in the land of Egypt". The Israelites are most emphatically expected to empathize with the alien, having once been in that humbling station themselves. Remembering at all times that they have “come out of Egypt” leaves the people without an excuse to forget the conditions of the less fortunate and for lording it over them!  


Our text continues in verses 22:22-23 as follows: "You shall not afflict an orphan or a widow.  If afflicting you shall afflict him, if he crying cries to Me, hearing I will hear his cry" (literal translation). Notice the doubling of the verbs, stressing YHVH's concern for these needy ones. With this said, once again we turn in the Brit Chadasha (New Testament) to the Epistle of Ya'acov (James), where we read, “Pure and undefiled religion before Elohim and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions" (1:27). In the same vein, Sh’mot 23:3 and 6 read, respectively, "And you shall not favor the lowlydah’l - in his lawsuit" and, "You shall not pervert the judgment of your needy one – “evyon” in his lawsuit". And although “favor” and “pervert” are certainly not synonymous, according to the commentator Cassuto the way these two verbs are presented here makes for the similarity between the two ideas. He, therefore, tried to reconcile these two passages, which he deemed to be redundant if not explained in some other way. Hence Cassuto attaches to “ev'yon” (here) a meaning other than "needy", and connects it to the word “oyev” - “enemy” - thus making this a prohibition corresponding to the two preceding admonitions (23:4-5), that is, to mete out justice to the enemy. [5] Nevertheless, it does make perfect sense that YHVH would forbid favoring the needy in judgment, as a lowly social status, obviously, does not necessarily equal righteousness. At the same time, perverting the case of the needy in court is also a very severe violation of YHVH’s righteousness. Reflecting on the case of the stranger, widow, and orphan (22:21-23), the prohibition to mistreat them is stated in the second person singular, but the consequences are to befall on the nation as a whole, as verse 23 is written in the second person plural, and says the following: "And My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword, your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless".


YHVH’s expectation from the redeemed community’s attitudes is also illustrated in another way. In 22:25 we read: "If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to him; you shall not charge him interest”. The preposition “if” (that the Torah presents here, rather than “when”), intrigued the Jewish commentators, since in their opinion there was no question that lending to the needy was a definite command. They resolved this by stating that if one does something compulsorily, it is not necessarily done as graciously as when doing it out of one’s own free will. Thus, YHVH expects His people to act as if given an option; that is from a generous heart that has elected to act, even if in reality there is no choice in the matter. Put differently, we are to delight in obedience and generosity.


Let us return now to 22:26-27 briefly, there to find included in the ordinance a reasoned appeal: "If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious” (italics added). This “neighbor” is possibly so poor that his cloak serves him as “his covering” – a sheet – “cloak for his body” – sleeping garment, and “for sleeping in” – it is his very mattress. YHVH is concerned with every detail, “for I am gracious”, and expects as much from His own.  


Verse 29 in our chapter (22) is unique in its (Hebrew) vocabulary. It is generally translated: “You shall not delay [to offer] the first of your ripe produce and your juices. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me”. But “the first of your ripe produce and your juices”, are rendered, literally, in Hebrew as: “your fullness – “m’le’at’cha” - and your tear/drop – “dim’a’cha”. Before we go any further, let us note that the “fullness” is in reference to the first fruit, while the “tear” connects to the free will offering. Interestingly, within “demah” or “dim’ah” is included the word for blood, “dam”. This gives an added meaning to Luke 22:44, where we read about Yeshua’s sweat that was like “drops of blood”. But what about the “fullness”? John 19:29 mentions the “full” jar of vinegar into which a sponge was dipped and held up to Yeshua’s thirsting lips. In the second part of verse 29 (in our chapter) YHVH continues, saying in the same breath with the “fullness” and “tear/blood” concept: “the firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me”. As we know, bloody sweat and the fullness of the cup of sorrows were both experienced by YHVH’s Firstborn, whom He gave “that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  If indeed the "tear" or "blood" offering is one of "free will", it is totally commensurate with Yeshua's attitude, as expressed by Him in the following words:  "I lay down my life… no one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself" (John 0:17,18).


Coming next in chapter 23, are commands to "do good to those who hate you" (see Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27), by taking care of their animals and livestock, if they are either lost or have met mishap (vs. 4-5). "If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it" (23:5), in its original form is one of the most curious and strangely worded commands in our Parasha. Let us try to decipher what the Hebrew says about what one ought to do to this animal lying under its burden: "cease from leaving it – leaving is azov – leaving it you shall leave it – azov ta'azov" (another one of those doubled verbs). How strange! The addressee, who was just charged with "cease from leaving it", is now told, "leaving you shall leave it"! How are we to understand this seeming contradiction? It seems that the Torah is more concerned with one's natural inclination, and thus "cease from leaving" refers to what one would have normally done upon seeing his enemy's animal in this condition. The second and double "leaving" or "letting go", again points to one's inner resistance to help out this animal, which belongs to a person who is known to be one's adversary. These strong commanding words, therefore, target the core of one's being and present an opportunity to be transformed at the heart level and do that which is right. Again, how commensurate is this with Yeshua's teaching (see Matt. 5:44)!


The next directive of "letting go" appears quite a bit easier to accomplish, as it is not as demanding (emotionally) as the previous one. "And you shall sow your land six years, and you shall gather its produce. And the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow" (23:10). After the seventh-year release of the slaves (referred to above), we encounter again a ‘seventh-year’ principle, this time regarding the land. "Let it rest and lie fallow" is designated by two verbs, “shamot” (sh.m.t. shin, mem, tet), and “natosh” ( noon, tet, shin); the first meaning to “let go", and the other to “forsake". This "letting go" and "forsaking" of the land and its husbandry is designed so that "the needy of your people shall eat. [Whatever] they leave behind, the animals of the field shall eat. So, you shall do to your vineyard, and to your olive grove" (v. 11). A similar theme is seen in the following verse, which speaks of seven days of labor, and of a seventh day in which "you shall rest, so that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your slave-girl and your alien may be refreshed". It is significant that the care of the poor, slaves and livestock is related to "resting" and "letting go", all of which point to trust, faith, and reliance on YHVH, while also having His heart of care and compassion toward the less fortunate. Similarly, we read in T’hilim (Psalms) 46:10 (literal translation): “Let go and know that I am Elohim”.


In verses 14-17 (still in 23) reference is made to the calendar, and its feasts, or rather, “pilgrimages” – “regalim”. The usage of "regel" (singular) which is "leg" lets us know that a pilgrimage is at hand, with this term also meaning a specified time or occasion (e.g. Num 22:28). This is indeed confirmed by v. 17:  "Three times in the year all your males shall appear before YHVH your Elohim". But whereas the month of Aviv, mentioned in verse 15, is to be the first of months (ref. Sh’mot 12:2), speaking of the “Feast of Ingathering”, in verse 16, as being at the “end of the year” appears to be problematic. Hence let us take a close look at the words used in verse 16. In Hebrew the “end of the year” is rendered “tzet ha’shana” – literally, the “going out of the year”. However, can the term “tzet” have a different meaning? In D’varim 14:22 there is mention of “the grain that the field produces year by year”. In Hebrew it says, "the produce of your seed that comes out – yotzeh - year by year”. Thus, the verb yotzeh – comes out – in its noun form - “tzet” - may be understood as the “produce” of a given year. Going back to our verse, 23, we may read, therefore: “The Feast of Ingathering at [the time of] the year’s produce…” Verse 18 deals with the blood and the fat of the sacrifices, and their proper handling. Some of the translations read: “nor shall the fat of My sacrifice remain until morning” for the second part of the verse (italics added). The Hebrew word used in this second reference to “sacrifice” is “chag, which literally means feast with the idea of circularity embedded in it (both in terms of the repetition or reoccurrence of the feast, and may also refer to the actual physical marching and/or procession connected with it. See Is. 40:22). Speaking of the Pesach sacrifice, it is interesting to note that YHVH emphasizes "My feast" (using the less common, "chag". Cf. Lev. 23:5).


In 23:19 (v. 18 in Hebrew) we encounter 10 words (5 in Hebrew) upon which rest most of the elaborate Jewish dietary laws: "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk". It follows, "You shall bring the first of the fruit of your soil to the house of YHVH your Elohim". The word used for "boil" (“bashel” -, bet, shin, lamed) or "cook" also means "ripe" (e.g. Joel 3:13). Could this be a reminder, therefore, not to let the kid become too mature before offering it up to YHVH, especially if the context of the entire verse is taken into consideration, along with 22:30 (where mention is made of bringing to YHVH the firstlings of the sheep on the eighth day)?


According to the above examination of the term “mishpatim”, translated as “judgments”, it is not to be defined strictly by the letter of the law but more broadly as YHVH’s just arbitrations, which are to become standard and customary within the redeemed community of Yisrael (the italicized terms are all rendered “mishpat” or “mishpatim” in Hebrew). As a provision for making this lifestyle feasible, we read: “Behold, I send an Angel/Messenger before you, to keep you on the way and to bring you to a place which I have prepared” (Ex. 23:20 ff). Thus, protection is already provided, and the destination has also been prepared. “If you obey His voice and do as I say…” tells us that the Messenger’s voice and YHVH’s are synonymous. “And I will be an enemy to your enemies and I will be an adversary to your adversaries”. In the Hebrew “I will be an enemy”-  ve’a’ya’vti (le’oy’vecha”- “to your enemies”) appears here in verb form (to be found nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible), as it does too with “I will be an adversary” - “ve’tza’rarti (le’tza’re’cha” –  “to your adversaries”, v. 22). The usage of the verb form (and especially in the case where a verb is literally made up for the purpose of conveying this idea) underscores YHVH’s total identity with His People. It illustrates more vividly His active participation in their experiences. The presence of the Angel/Messenger, in whom abides YHVH’s name, in their midst adds to the closeness that YHVH is establishing with His people. More evidence of the direct presence of Elohim in issues pertaining to the everyday life of the people is the usage of the word Elohim (in Hebrew) in 21:6 (and in 22:7&8) when referring to the judges, who are to be His direct representatives. YHVH's sovereignty is also emphasized in 21:12-13, where it says about an unintentional killing that Elohim is the one who had delivered the unfortunate victim into the hand of the one who struck him.

 Leaving YHVH’s Messenger and the 'inclusion' of His presence in all aspects of the life of the Hebrews, we now continue on and climb new heights, but not before the act of sprinkling the atonement blood (24:6), in the course of which the “young men of Israel” offer up burnt offerings and peace offerings (v. 5), while the seventy elders, “went up… and saw the Elohim of Israel… and did eat and drink” (24:9,10,11). In this way the covenant is seen to encompass the people as a whole; from the young men at the foot of the mountain (the foundations); to the elders at the top and in close proximity to YHVH, with the sprinkling of the atonement blood being at the heart of the event and literally over the ‘body’ of the nation. The twelve pillars and the altar, in 24:4, provide a graphic and physical illustration, again, of the total inclusion of every member of the household of Yisrael. In addition, in Hebrew the word for “pillars” is actually conveyed here in singular form, thus adding a unifying factor to the all-inclusive nature of the covenant and oneness of the people. The scene climaxes with Moshe being called up to YHVH on the seventh day of this season, during which YHVH’s glory appeared on the Mountain: “And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of YHVH was like a consuming fire on the mountain top” (24:17).  


YHVH summoned Moshe to come up to the Mountain, where he was to stay for forty days, as he was about to give “the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandment which [YHVH] has written to teach them" (24:12). The word for "teach them" is “(le)horotam”, of the root h.r.h (hey, resh, hey), which is also the root for "parent" – horeh – indicating that YHVH is the ultimate Parent. "Horeh", parent, is further rooted in "har", mountain, being a reference to pregnancy and its protruding belly. Thus, in 21:22, the "woman with child" is "isha hara" – a pregnant woman. Interestingly, the mountain is a place that is identified with Elohim's teaching and presence, not only here but also being His dwelling place in Jerusalem, as well as Yeshua's sermon on the mount, transfiguration, crucifixion, and return. This particular verse makes a clear connection between Torah and "parental teaching", and beyond, even to pregnancy.  Here we see again, as we observed in the beginning that, "the Torah is anything but a strictly official and legal codex”. On his way up the mountain with his assistant Yehoshua, Moshe tells the elders: "Wait here for us until we come back to you" (24:14), echoing words spoken many years hence when Avraham went up the mountain with his son and charged his young men: "Stay here… the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you" (Gen. 22:6). These words create a direct linkage between Mount Moriah and Mount Sinai.



[1] New Studies in Shmot Part 2, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

[2] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris,    Moody  Press, Chicago, 1980.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New Studies

[5] Ibid.



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