Mishpatim: Gd, and Human Relationships

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The name and content of Mishpatim alert us to this portion’s focus on laws. At the same time, Rashi in particular and Onkelos to a lesser extent, remind us of Gd’s role even in the realm of human justice. We will see a few of those comments, then some on how the human realm of law would work in a Torah-guided society.

Gd feart dos velt

I doubt I got the Yiddish correct there, but there is a phrase along those lines which means Gd runs the world (I learned it years ago when I stumbled on a video of a certain Lubavitch figure—I completely forget whom—finished a talk by saying the whole world would come to accept that the Lubavitcher rebbe, who had passed away by that point, feart the velt. Stunned by the open heresy, the phrase stuck in my mind).

Rashi has the idea both in 21;13 and 23;7, two situations where the court system will not be able to produce justice. In the first verse, the Torah speaks of a person to whom Gd brings an unwitting killing. Wondering why Gd would lead a person to kill another, Rashi quotes Makkot 10b, this person had previously killed someone by being insufficiently careful, where the victim had gotten away with deliberate murder. Gd arranges it so the two meet up, the intentional murderer gets killed by the insufficiently careful one, in such a way the latter must go to a city of refuge.

Aside from my attachment to the comment because I worked the idea into my first novel, Murderer in the Mikdash, it makes clear neither the Gemara nor Rashi thought the court system would right all wrongs. People could and would evade justice, with Gd there to fix it.

The Mills of Gd Grind Slowly

I titled this subsection with a phrase my father a”h was fond of quoting, a reminder Gd’s justice is inescapable. A second example comes when evidence arises after a court verdict. The Torah says ve-naki ve-tzaddik al taharog, kill neither one who is cleansed nor one who is righteous/innocent, understood by Rashi (and tradition) to mean we reopen cases after verdict only for convicted defendants, in case the new evidence proves they were not liable. Verdicts of innocence are not up for discussion, an early version of the ban on double jeopardy the US legal system has as well.

The verse ends with the assurance ki lo Atzdik rasha, for I will not allow a wicked person to be treated as righteous, a promise Rashi tells us means Gd will make sure proper punishment comes to those freed by these procedures.

Rashi thinks the parsha gives us an example of such delayed retribution, wrongdoing let slide in the moment, punished later. 24;10 tells us leaders of the Jewish people “saw” Gd, and ate and drank. Rashi thinks this capital disrespect towards Gd, ignored in the moment so as not to mar the joy of the day of the Giving of the Torah. Nadav and Avihu got theirs on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan (for Rashi, apparently a day not immune to having its sadness marred) and the other elders in Bamidbar 11;1, when the people complained.

It is another example of Gd’s active involvement in addressing wrongs; I also like it as a way to remember we might not always know the context of Gd’s punishments (or rewards). For Rashi, whatever Nadav and Avihu did at the dedication of the Mishkan may not on its own have deserved death, because they were already liable for what they did at Sinai, as was true for the elders later. Human observers would not know that, and might object to what they saw as excessive punishment.

The value of humility in assessing Gd seems to me to be also in the background of an extra word Onkelos puts in his translation of mahalah, 23;25. The verse promises Gd will remove illnesses from the Jewish people when they properly serve Gd. Onkelos writes mar’in bishinharmful illnesses, as if there is another kind. ArtScroll cited Parshegen, who cited Hatotzerot Kesef, Onkelos meant us to realize the usual illnesses of old age would continue, the promise here was to remove unusual ones.

Along the same lines, I suspect Onkelos thinks there are good and bad illnesses. Good ones are annoyances in the short term, with some long term value; those will continue even for the righteous Jewish nation. They will be spared bad illnesses, the purely damaging ones.

The Awareness of Gd Obligates

We can move to ideas about people and their interactions with one last Gd-aware aspect of the parsha. The Torah bans mentioning the names of other gods, 23;12, a rule Rashi extends to using places of such worship as a reference (I’ll meet you by place) and/or to entering partnerships with non-Jews who will swear by their gods should a dispute arise.

The Jew also is obligated to keep Gd in mind when tempted by sin. When the Torah speaks of the deliberate murderer, 21;14, Onkelos translates yirsha, the person acting evilly. Especially because of the comments I have selected here, Onkelos’ word choice implies to me he wanted us to know any knowing act contrary to Torah law has an element of evil to it, I think because the person is ignoring Gd’s Will.

Master/Slave, Jewish or Not

When we come to people, the parsha shows a range of levels of connections among people. It recognizes two kinds of “slaves,” for example, Jews who have been sold to repay items they stole, and non-Jews who have become slaves to Jews (usually by partially converting to Judaism). For the latter group, the Torah assumes the master may use physical punishment when necessary, and lays out what happens should the master kill the slave.

The verse itself seems to evaluate the master by how fully we can correlate the death to the beating. Should the slave die within a day, the master is the killer; more than that, other factors may have come into play. Both Onkelos and Ramban, however, picked up on the Torah’s reference to the master having used a shevet, 21;20. Onkelos writes be-shaltan, to discipline, the stick used was not a weapon, was clearly an instrument of education (a ruler, for example, rather than a club or mace).

Ramban makes the same point, noting Mishlei 22;15 also speaks of a shevet as a vehicle of discipline or education. Still, should the beating go so far that the slave dies within a day, the master is liable for murder, like with any other human being. Regardless of the rules around a slave being “owned,” killing the slave deliberately is punished the same as killing any other human being.

Jewish “Slaves”

The Torah also knows of Jews sold into indentured servitude, usually lasting only six years. At the end of the term, the slave can opt to stay, and 21;6 says va-avado le-olam, the “slave” will serve forever (until the yovel, the Jubilee year), referring to the service. Devarim 15;17’s version of the scenario says the slave will be an eved olam, speaking of the person of the slave.

In both places, Onkelos writes eved palah, a servant who serves. I think he blurred the difference between the verses in the name of a larger point, even this kind of “slave,” whose ear has been pierced, who is in servitude until the yovel, is still only a worker, one whose service has been purchased, not his/her person.

Ramban gives teeth to the difference in his understanding of 21;3, where the Torah says the Jewish slave’s wife goes free with him at the end of his term of service. We had not known she was in the master’s service to need to go free; Rashi reports Hazal’s idea the verse informs us the purchase of the husband/father’s labor obligates the owner to feed his whole family.

Ramban says Hazal made the master responsible for all the servant’s financial obligations to his family, whether established by law or custom (if, e.g., custom has a father supporting his offspring through high school or college, the Jewish master who purchased his service would have to provide that same support). A “slave” who does not yet have financial obligations, such as with a woman he has not yet fully married or the widow of his childless brother, the master, too, has no requirement to step in.

“Owning” Fellow Jews Temporarily

One step removed from master/slave relationships, I suspect a footnote to the laws of borrowed items implies a momentary quasi-ownership of otherwise free Jews. The Torah makes the borrower liable for any breakage, avoidable or not, with two exceptions. Breakage in the course of ordinary wear and tear is understandable, where 22;14 also exempts the borrower if the lender was “with him.” Rashi takes that as a way of saying the borrower of the item had also hired or borrowed the person him/herself, and is therefore no longer liable for the item’s theft, damage, or destruction.

Rashi does not elaborate, but the idea of be’alav imo, the item’s owner is “with” him, suggested the owner in some sense became in turn owned by the borrower when he agreed to work for him, such that the “borrowed” item sort of already belonged to the borrower.

If so, another way for a Jew to come close to owning another.

Lies That Bind

Our parsha refers to a man who seduces a woman, 22;15. Ramban assumes the seducer must have lied, based on the root of yefateh, similar to the second paragraph of Shema’s warning pen yifteh levavkhem, lest your hearts be led astray. There, it’s by false gods, here Ramban is sure no woman would let herself be lured into a sexual relationship without a promise of something more (such as marriage, which he is now obligated to offer her).

If he did not, Ramban thinks he is free of obligation, as she made a free choice. Lying requires him to compensate her for what he took under false pretenses, the bridal gifts she can no longer expect her eventual husband to give her (based on the assumption men were less excited about marrying non-virginal women). She agreed to the physical relationship, not the financial loss, because she thought he had promised it to her.

Helping Those We Hate

For an even less close relationship, Onkelos expands the Torah’s requirement to help a fellow Jew. The verse speaks of an animal who belongs to someone we hate faltering under its load, 23;5, and commands the Jew to help, azov ta’azov imo. The phrase is usually read as saying the Jew should work with the animal’s owner to take off the load and adjust it in a way the animal can more easily bear.

Onkelos instead wrote mishbek tishbok ma de-be-libakh alohi, completely set aside what is in your heart against him (the animal’s owner). It renders the word azov closer to its usual meaning of to leave, as a result of which he takes it to be about what the Jew should do inside his/her head/heart. In addition, it adds another layer to what the Torah demands of the Jew; aside from the physical act of helping unload the animal, he has the Torah asking the Jew to free him/herself of the tension with the owner.

And, Finally, the Convert

A step further out again in terms of closeness, the Torah warns us many times about the proper treatment of converts. Mishpatim’s example, 22;20, says not to mistreat a ger because we Jews were gerim in Egypt. Same word, same verse, different for Onkelos; ger he has as giyor, stranger, where he thinks we were dayyarin, sojourners.

ArtScroll quotes Rashi, we should avoid bothering the convert for his/her foreignness, because we too were once foreigners, ignoring Onkelos’ clear choice to distinguish our experience from that of the convert. The convert is a stranger, has come into a society not his/her own; we were sojourners, in the sense of being there for a long time yet not fully part of the society. Culturally, we would have fully understood Egyptian society—known all the latest songs, foods, clothing choices, whatever—where the convert does not (I have read articles where converts who have been Jewish for decades speak of their continuing feeling they are missing pieces of what it means to be Jewish).

I think Onkelos heard the Torah telling us our sense of being outsiders to an Egyptian culture we largely knew, understood, and took part in, should make clear how hard it can be to be an outsider, and therefore treat the convert well and sensitively.

The laws of Mishpatim start with Gd, as Judaism always does, and then takes us into how Gd wants us to treat others, subordinates, hated others, or just those foreign to and different than us.

About Gidon Rothstein

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