Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Contains 23 positive commandments and 30 prohibitions primarily civil and criminal laws relating to slavery; assault and kidnapping; negligence and theft; illicit and idolatrous behavior; helping widows, and orphans; judicial laws and avoiding favoritism…Shabbos, Yom Tov and Shemitah…Conquering the Land…Avoidance of idolatry…Entering a Covenant with G-d…Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai to stay for forty days.
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 rules. 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.
On insulting one’s parents
If one behaves this way will “he most certainly will die”. The phrase means that one will punished by G-d when the Court cannot as, for example, in crimes committed in private. Relating to the sin of M’kallel aviv v’emo (vilifies, demeans or makes light of his parents) I think there is a punishment imposed 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 Mos Yumas.
On “Ayen tachas ayen” (“an eye for an eye”)
A first read of this statement seems to mean literal retribution; a legal authorization to inflict a punishment that is equal in kind and in degree to the injury. Throughout history, this Biblical rule has been cited to justify cruel retributive behavior was (and still is) used by critics 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 when he causes 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 means 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. Here, too, the word tachas must 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 is monetary compensation, except in the case of intentional homicide.
Rabbi 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 from-- 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; health; humanitarian (to avoid causing an animal pain); prohibition of mixing of different kinds of seeds and material for garments.
Rambam suggests that the prohibition is about avoiding idolatry—an opinion supported by recent archeological findings (cited by Rabbi Günter Plaut) that describe a then-prevailing Canaanite sacrificial rite.