What Kind of Book Are You?
Parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1–24:18
Dr. Vered Hillel, Netanya, Israel
I have a question for you. Have you ever heard of a lawyer or judge who sits down and reads a law book in a leisurely way as if it were a novel? While possible, this is not the norm. Law books are usually a collection of laws or codes that have been systematized according to individual laws, so that a person doesn’t have to sit down and read the entire book to find what they are looking for. One can simply look up the laws that pertain to the subject with which they are dealing. This is the way the Torah has often been read. The various laws have been identified and analyzed and then systemized as regulations. This is a helpful way of categorizing and understanding the individual laws, but it wrests the covenant between Hashem and Israel out of its narrative framework, which establishes the relationship between God and Israel.
Without the narrative link, the covenant, as articulated in Exodus 19–24, is devalued and read as another law book or law code, allowing the link between Israel and God to be severed.
In Exodus chapters 1–18 Hashem initiates a relationship with Israel while we are still in bondage. He calls and brings Israel out of bondage so that we will know him as our God (Exod 6:6–7; 16:12). It is only after this relationship is established with Israel that Hashem regulates the relationship through the covenant and its statutes. The purpose of the covenant was not to bring people into relationship with Hashem, since that was already established, but to help Israel be a holy people set apart to him, by defining holy behavior (Exod 19:6).
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is known as the Book of the Covenant, Sefer Habrit. It contains the earliest collection of biblical laws. These laws and regulations, as well as the narration in the Book of the Covenant, depict Hashem as a moral, law-giving king who cares about every aspect of people’s lives. He is the God of justice who prohibits perjury and demands complete impartiality in court (21:1–3) and who distinguishes the guilt of intentional murder from unintentional manslaughter (21:12–13). He expects people to treat each other properly and for us to exhibit holy behavior (21:14–22:16). He even shows concern for what might be classified as disadvantaged classes of people—slaves, foreigners, widows, orphans, and the poor (22:17–23:19).
This concern for the disadvantaged classes is a good example of the relationship between the narrative context and the actual laws. The first laws mentioned in Sefer Habrit are about slaves (21:2–11). This placement tells us that the treatment of slaves is a priority to Hashem.
The further mention of slaves in Exodus 20:10; 21:20-21, 26-27, 32; and 23:12 reinforces the prominence of the issue. These laws about slaves relate to the central theme of the narratives in the first eighteen chapters of Exodus, the release of Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage. In Exodus 22:22–23:9 Hashem extends his concern for slaves to others by providing regulations for social justice concerning the poor and sojourners. The specific laws in these verses begin and end with the sojourner, but they also include the widow, the orphan, and the poor. These are the very people who are most likely to become enslaved due to unpaid debts. Therefore, the narrative of Israel’s experience in Egypt is the basis for understanding these social-humanitarian regulations.
It is easy for us to read Sefer Habrit as a systematized law code from which we can draw a law or statute and upon which we can build a list of dos and don’ts. We can learn about social justice, humanitarian outreach, and even holy behavior by reading the individual statutes. All of this is good, but how much more profitable it is when we draw upon their wider narrative context, which comes from a relationship with Hashem. The resulting benefits and blessings reach beyond this physical realm into the eternal one. Instead of promoting a rigid understanding and observance of covenantal laws, which can negatively affect our lives and relationships, placing the laws in their narrative context in Exodus, expands our relationships and changes our lives. Our hearts, concerns, and desires become more in line with Hashem’s because our observance stems from our relationship with him and flows to others. At the same time, lives lived in such a manner continue the narrative of Israel’s deliverance from bondage by Hashem’s outstretched arm (Exod 6:6) and further the kingdom of Heaven.