Thoughts on Mishpatim

canstockphoto0885276This week’s parasha is Mishpatim (Rules), Exodus 21.1–24.18.[i] There are two extra readings this Shabbat as it is Shabbat Sheqalim, Exodus 30.11-16, as well as the Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh, Numbers 28.9-15. (Rosh Chodesh Adar is next Thursday and Friday.) As one might imagine, there will be quite a bit of reading this Shabbat in synagogues around the world. As I am using the Triennial Reading Cycle, we will be looking at Exodus 22.4–23.19 while looking briefly as the reading for Shabbat Sheqalim.

There is command which appears not once but twice in this passage,

You must not exploit or oppress an outsider, for you were outsiders in the land of Egypt. ‏וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה‏ וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ‏ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם   (Exodus 22.20  23.9)

Not only are neighbors, friends and family to be protected but also outsiders, those who are not a part of the community. The word here for outsiders is גֵרִים often translated or understood as converts. However this is not usually the case in biblical Hebrew, and especially not in passages where Israel is said to have been גֵרִים בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם strangers or outsiders in the land of Egypt, as the children of Jacob certainly did not convert to the religion of the Egyptians. In his commentary on this passage, Professor Sarna notes that there are four distinct groups of disadvantaged or underprivileged individuals whom HaShem takes special note and care of; the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the poor. He states emphatically that HaShem’s concern “arises out of His essential nature, His intolerance of injustice, and His compassionate qualities” (22.22-23, 26).[ii] Then he goes on to speak about why the treatment of the stranger/outsider is so important. He states, “Because he (the stranger) could not fall back upon local family and clan ties, he lacked the social and legal protection that these ordinarily afforded. Being dependent on the goodwill of others, he could easily fall victim to discrimination and exploitation.”[iii] This understanding makes Yeshua’s exhortation even more pertinent,

So in all things, do to others what you would want them to do to you—for this is the Torah and the Prophets. (Matthew 7.12)

HaShem’s intense concern for justice and equity is also seen in the Exodus 30 passage which is read for Shabbat Sheqalim. This passage gives an account of the census that HaShem required Moshe to take of all the people of Israel. Everyone, over the age of twenty, was to be counted, and everyone was to be assessed a ransom payment, expiation money (Exodus 30.16). Both HaShem’s justice and equity are seen in this action; justice because it was a reminder of the redemptive act of the LORD and equity because it was the same tax, one-half shekel, for each individual. It did not matter the person’s age, social station, or financial standing in the community–everyone paid the same because everyone stands the same before HaShem. This state of equality may be a way of understanding Rav Shaul’s statement to the believers in Galatia, when he wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for you are all one in Messiah Yeshua,” (Galatians 3.28). It is not the individual distinctions that were done away with, rather it was and remains affirming the fact that before HaShem, we all stand the same and require the same payment – the sacrifice provided by Messiah Yeshua.

The regular Haftarah for this parasha is Jeremiah 34.8-32 and 33.25-26. Saying that Jeremiah was not one of the more popular prophets is an understatement. In this reading, he proclaims HaShem’s coming discipline on Judah and Jerusalem for being disobedient to the jubilee process recorded in Mishpatim.

…thus says Adonai, the God of Israel: “I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying: ‘At the end of seven years you are to set free every man his brother that is a Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you are let him go free from you.’ But your fathers did not obey Me, nor inclined their ear. Now you had repented and had done that which is right in My eyes, by proclaiming liberty everyone to his neighbor. You even had made a covenant before Me in the House where My Name is called. But you turned around and profaned My Name, and made everyone his servant and his handmaid, whom you had let go free at their will, return, and you brought them back into subjection, to be your servants and handmaids.” (Jeremiah 34.13-16)

This prophecy shows the great importance of ethical treatment of others, especially those who cannot care from themselves. In this one prophetic utterance, Jeremiah describes three breaches of covenantal stimulations. First is the disobedience of Exodus 21.2, which is the beginning of the mispatim for the Year of Jubilee and the freeing of Hebrew slaves in the seventh year. Second is the breach of the covenant that King Zedekiah made and that the people accepted, to release said slaves, which they did and then immediately reneged on the decision (Jeremiah 34.8-11). Finally, to emphasize the intensity of HaShem’s feelings on this matter, He tells the people that they have performed hillul ha-shem, they have desecrated the Name of the LORD (34.16),

“So you are to keep My mitzvot and do them. I am AdonaiYou must not profane My Holy Name, for I will be made holy among Bnei-Yisrael. I am Adonai who makes you holy, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. I am Adonai.” (Leviticus 22.31-32)

Fortunately, even though Israel broke their side of the covenant, HaShem, though He would discipline Israel as an errant child, never broke and never will break covenant with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Thus says Adonai: “If I have not made My covenant of day and night firm, and the fixed patterns ordering the heavens and earth, only then would I reject the offspring of Jacob, and of My servant David so that I would not take from his offspring rulers over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore them from their exile and have compassion on them.” (Jeremiah 33.25-26)

The reading from the Besorah is Luke 8.1-21 contains the parable and explanation of the sown seed and the different types of ground in which the seed is sown, as well as the resulting return. Each of us should make it our goal to be categorized as good seed, who are “those with a praiseworthy and good heart, who have heard the word and hold it fast and bear fruit with patient endurance” (Luke 8.15).


[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Sarna, Nahum M., The JPS Commentary Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, Commentary, Philadelphia: JPS, 1991, p 137.

[iii] Ibid. p 137-138.

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