24 Shevat 5774 / January 24-25, 2014
In this week’s portion, Mishpatim, we find a slew of rules for the Israelites to abide by. We learn about some of the requirements for slaveholding, that the penalty for striking a parent is death, and that if a man sleeps with a virgin woman who is not betrothed, he must pay her bride-price to her father (and must marry her, unless the father says no).
Alongside some of these seemingly more archaic rules are others that in many ways are still observed today. For example, we learn that if an ox attacks and gores a person, the owner of the ox is not responsible – unless the owner knew that the ox was in the habit of goring people, and failed to take proper precautions (a standard used in many, if not all, American states). Similarly, we find guidance as to who is liable if one leaves goods in the care of another and they’re damaged or destroyed, and learn that we’re not meant to charge interest when lending to other Jews (hence the creation of Hebrew Free Loan associations).
The Israelites are instructed to allow their animals to rest on Shabbat, to not spread false rumors, to not take bribes, and to return a wandering animal to its owner – even if the owner is your enemy.
After hearing all of these rules and more, they respond affirmatively: “All the things God has commanded we will do!”
One of the most challenging aspects of this portion is that so many of the stated rules are clearly outdated, while others continue to make incredible sense even in our world today. For many, due to the perceived outrageousness of the rules we’ve now come to view as unacceptable (and frankly downright offensive), the easiest thing to do is simply reject them all and refrain from engaging in a conversation about the text. To do so, however, would keep us from finding the gems contained within, and would prevent us from appreciating how some of the rules enacted over 3,000 years ago and agreed to by our ancestors continue to make sense today, and in many ways, have formed the core foundation of Western legal thought (and thus our society).