Contains 23 positive commandments and 30 prohibitions broadly categorized into rules of civil legislation; offenses against property; and moral offenses …
o Laws of Hebrew servant
o Assault, kidnapping and murder
o Negligence and theft
o Four types of guardians
o Illicit and idolatrous behavior—seduction, sodomy, witchcraft, polytheism
o Oppression of the weak
o Helping the unfortunate
o Loans and pledges
o Respecting Leaders
o Offering of first fruits; redemption of firstborn
o Not eating flesh of animal that is torn off (T’rayf )
o Judicial Laws; truth in Justice
o Love of enemy
o Impartiality in justice
o Sabbath year and Sabbath day
o Three annual pilgrim festivals
o Dispersion of enemies
o Conquest of Land
Dispersion of Enemies and Conquest of Land
Ratification of Covenant with God
Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai for forty days
Structure of the Parsha
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag perceives this lengthy set of laws dealing with inter-personal relationships (that enable us to achieve our mandate of living a life of both Tzedaka and Mishpat) as being sandwiched in between a matching set of “bookend” regulations that discuss the proper worship of God. Worship of God is defined by behavior between Man and his fellow Man. God had chosen our forefather Avraham in order that he and his offspring “keep the way of God to do Tzedaka and Mishpat”. Having entered into a Covenant with God at Mt. Sinai, the nation is expected to live by these values.
The top “layer” deals with the laws relating to idol worship and building of an Altar (at the end of Parshat Yisro). The bottom layer consists of the laws of the three pilgrimage holidays (listed towards the end of this week’s Parsha). “Sandwiched” in-between are a…
Layer of civil laws (case law) for the Bet-din (Court) to decide, ranging from capital offense to accidental property damage. Mishpat (judgment) involves people coming to court to resolve a dispute that can only be settled by a shofet (judge).These individual laws begin with the Hebrew word ki , meaning “if” or “when”.
Buffer of a number of laws between Man and God that paves the way for rules of ethical behavior. These laws do not begin with ki because it is the Court’s and not the individual’s responsibility to initiate action.
Layer of ethical laws that define Tzedaka (righteous behavior).These rules, presented in the imperative style (i.e., do …or don’t), that are beyond the jurisdiction of the Court demand that we act in an ethical manner in all our activities. God’s treasured nation is held to a higher moral standard of behavior.
A giant step forward for Mankind
The impact and progressive nature of the commandments and prohibitions presented can be best understood in the context of society as it existed at that time…
• Slavery existed throughout antiquity and the newly-freed-from-slavery Israelites were warned to treat slaves as humans, not chattel
• In ancient societies the altar was considered a place of refuge for a murderer. The Torah’s view is that there is no asylum for a murderer anywhere.
• Prohibitions of striking and insulting parents stand in contrast to prevailing societal attitudes about parental treatment.
• Efforts at building society, limiting revenge and curbing bloodthirsty behavior are manifest in the laws requiring financial restitution for bodily injury; establishment of an honest court system; and aiding even one’s enemy in his times of need.
• Stealing in all forms is prohibited and fines were developed to compensate victims for their losses.
• Protection of the weak and vulnerable in society is established as a hallmark of Jewish Ethics.
• Idolatry and cult worship, rampant in ancient times, are repeatedly outlawed in many obvious and even less obvious ways.
• Prohibition of working on the Sabbath (a radical, unheard of and often mocked idea) is stressed as a humanitarian effort, a respite for a person, his servants and his livestock.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes the sudden shift in the style of the Torah text. Until now there was a sweeping and dramatic narrative of the Israelites’ experience in Egypt and then their redemption from Egypt. But now we are presented with a wide range of detailed and complicated laws to live by. Rabbi Sacks’ conclusion is that the genius of the Torah is “to translate historical experience into detailed legislation, so that the Israelites would live what they had learned on a daily basis….vision becomes detail and narrative becomes law.” Narrative tells us what happened to us; who and what we are. The body of law with all its detail concretizes the vision and turns it into reality.
On insulting one’s parents
If one behaves this way “he most certainly will die”. The phrase means that one will be punished by God since the Court cannot deal with those crimes committed in private. The sin of M’kallel aviv v’emo (vilifies, demeans or makes light of his parents) imposes punishment even during one’s life. Treating one’s parents in a disrespectful way, considering them “lightweights”, and not coming to grips with one’s feeling/conflicts can lead to a kind of inner death (neurosis/psychosis), a conflicted emotional state of mind that is the modern day manifestation of “he most certainly will die”.
On not oppressing and on loving the stranger
We are commanded to exercise self-control, just when the temptation is the greatest to take advantage of the weak (widows, orphans).
So important is this behavior toward strangers that the Torah cautions us thirty six times (according to another opinion in the Talmud forty six times!)The prohibition of oppression refers to verbal as well as physical abuse. The Talmud states that if a proselyte comes to study Torah we are prohibited from saying words like “the mouth that has consumed forbidden meats, vermin and crawling things has the audacity to study the Torah given from the mouth of the Almighty”.
The reason offered in our Parsha for the prohibition of causing hurt and oppression to a stranger is “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” and presumably know firsthand what it means to be treated like a stranger. Furthermore, should one be tempted to oppress and maltreat the helpless, God promises that He will respond to the pleas of the stranger and will harshly punish the persecutor. The Talmud adds its concern that insults could trigger a relapse.
Rabbi Sacks explores the question of the comfort felt within one’s own social group versus the fear/antipathy that a social group feels towards strangers. We are like tribal animals who are easily threatened by members of another tribe. “The greatest crimes of humanity have been committed against the stranger, the outsider, the one-not-like-us.” [The Greeks viewed non-Greeks as barbarians. Nazi Germany considered Jews vermin, lice and a cancer in the national body.] Particularly during times of change and disruption our emotional armament of empathy, sympathy, knowledge and rationality fail us in our relationship to strangers. Comes the Torah and reminds us that we were once strangers and our experience in Egypt was life-changing. “Having lived and suffered as strangers, we became the people commanded to care for strangers”.
On “Ayen tachas ayen” (“an eye for an eye”)
Throughout history, this Biblical rule has been cited to justify cruel retributive behavior used by critics against Jews to show the (alleged) barbaric behavior of Jews and of the Torah (in contrast to the Christian ethic of “turning the other cheek”).
But the Rabbis clearly understood this law to mean monetary compensation. The punishment needs to be commensurate with the crime and if the meaning is to literally blind the offender inequitable outcomes could result. For example, if the offender died during the removal of his eye, he would have lost both his eye and his life for poking out only one of the other person’s eyes. An injustice will occur if the offender was already blind in one eye and his good eye is to be removed because he will be left totally blind while the victim still has one good eye. How is one punished for causing partial loss of eyesight in one eye?
Rabbi Benno Jacob finds the key in the word tachas, since that word’s use in other places in the Torah can only mean approximate, or substitute for. For example, during the Akeda story Avraham offers a ram “tachas b’no” not an identical, not an exact equivalent, but something that is “in place of” or “instead of” his son. Therefore, tachas can only mean something monetary that is a substitute for (or an approximation of) the value of the eye but absolutely not the eye itself. Under Torah law, retribution for physical damages means monetary compensation, except in the case of intentional homicide.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes that “based on the earliest known Jewish records, Jewish courts did not blind those who deprived others of sight”. Robert Alter indicates that monetary compensation for these physical damages was widespread in ancient Near Eastern codes.
Rabbi Gunter Plaut thinks that the intention of this progressive advance in criminal law may be to limit private revenge, particularly in family and tribal feuds. These laws try to blunt the bloodthirsty search for revenge characteristic of primitive family and tribal feuds, in order to build a functioning and civilized modern society.
Unlike any other legal system, the Torah appears less concerned about jail time for the thief than with aiding the victim and discouraging stealing.
The thief is obligated to return the stolen object and then to pay the victim a 100% fine. In the event that an ox or sheep is stolen, the fine is five and six times the value, respectively, reflecting the importance of these animals in an agrarian society.
Rabbi Telushkin cites a later parallel in nineteenth century America when horse thieves were punished more severely than other robbers, because of the greater personal suffering experienced by the victim who was left with no means of transportation.
Stealing a person (kidnapping) with the intent of selling him into slavery is considered a capital crime, punishable by death.
On “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk”
This prohibition, which encompasses cooking, eating and benefiting, is the basis of subsequent rabbinic regulations relating to eating milk and milk products together with meat and meat products. Explanations for this restriction include…
• Avoidance of the magical
• Preservation of the milk-giving ability of the animal
• Preservation of health
• Humanitarian (avoid causing an animal pain)
• Prohibition of mixing of different kinds of seeds and materials
• Avoidance of this act of moral insensitivity(Ramban)
• Avoidance of the negative interaction of opposing spiritual forces. In Kabalah meat (red color) is the physical manifestation of the Divine power of Severity while milk(white color) is the manifestation of Kindness
Rambam suggests that the prohibition is about avoiding idolatry—an opinion supported by recent archeological findings (cited by Rabbi Plaut) that describe a then-prevailing Canaanite sacrificial ritual.