Torah Thoughts – Mishpatim

I grew up in a “military” home; my father was career US Air Force. I kind of knew that I would also be going into the military. So, at eighteen I enlisted in the US Marine Corps and for the next twelve plus years lived by a relatively strict code of behavior and dress. It was not always easy, there were occasionally life and family pressures that came with being in the Marines. But the one thing that came to mind time and time again was, “I volunteered for this, I wasn’t drafted or forced into the Marine Corps.” I may not have understood the full implications of life in military service, but I willingly signed on the dotted line, committing myself to said life – three times in fact. 

In last week’s parsha, Israel was introduced to the basic framework of the Covenant that Hashem was offering them (Exodus 20:1-17). This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, begins to flesh out that Covenant. The word mishpatim literally means “judgements” but can also be translated as rules or ordinances.According to the sages, mishpatim refers to the category of rules (mitzvot) that we can logically understand. Among other things, these mitzvot establish the guidelines for proper, ethical care for slaves and for livestock, as well as responsibility for damages caused by said livestock to others. They also cover the dealing with theft and restitution of lost property, whether by the hand of the thief or by the action or inaction of a borrower. The prophets repeatedly chided Israel for their failure to heed the mitzvot given in parashat Mishpatim, specifically oppression of those on the fringes of society

You must not exploit or oppress an outsider, for you were outsiders in the land of Egypt. You must not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you mistreat them in any way, and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry.

Exodus 22:20-23

In Isaiah’s first vision, Hashem, in correcting wayward Judah and Jerusalem, pleaded with the people to “learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). The prophet Micah gives a practical understanding and application of the regulations in Mishpatim to care for others whether they be family or outsiders and to deal caringly for those who cannot care for themselves in his admonition, “He has told you, humanity, what is good, and what ADONAI is seeking from you: only to practice justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

There are other mitzvot in the Torah that Israel, both then and now, may or may not understand their reason or purpose. Mitzvot such as those dealing with ritual purity and impurity, food and clothing requirements, are not easy to understand logically. Nevertheless, Israel was and is just as responsible for these mitzvot as for those we can easily understand.  In fact, Israel has never been asked or required to understand the rationale behind the mitzvot but only to accept and to do them. Before the Covenant was given, Moshe explained that if they would keep the Covenant Israel would be Hashem’s Am Segula (His special people). Israel responded, “Everything that ADONAI has spoken, we will do,” וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה va’yomru, “kol asher diber ADONAI na’aseh” (Exodus 19:8). Then after the Covenant has been presented to them, the people respond once again “All that ADONAI has spoken, we will do and obey (literally ‘hear’)” וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע va’yomru, kol asher diber ADONAI na’aseh v’nishmah (Exodus 24:7).

I included the Hebrew in both of the proclamations because I want to emphasize what the two verses have in common and the one difference. First all the people answered (וַיֹּאמְרוּ) and they said, “we will do” (נַעֲשֶׂה). The Covenant was not forced upon Bnei Israel, they accepted it voluntarily. They could have walked away from the mountain, saying “man, this is more than I bargained for, I’m out of here.” For that matter, after the mitzvot in Mishpatim were given and they learned more of what was required, they could have turned around and left; but instead, they reiterated their acceptance. They made the choice to accept the Covenant, binding it upon themselves and their descendants for all time. After hearing the parameters of the Covenant they committed their willingness to do what was written therein even before understanding the regulations, etc. The commitment in Exodus 24:7 states that Israel will do and hear (shema), which carries with it the idea of heeding, paying attention, understanding. So, the people of Israel committed to keeping and doing both logically understandable commands and not so understandable commands.

In the Apostolic Writings we read Yeshua’s words to his talmidim, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you. I selected you…” (John 15:16) and “No one can come to Me unless My Father who sent Me draws him…” (John 6:44). The choosing and drawing Yeshua spoke about is comparable to the leading of Bnei Israel out of Egypt, first to Sinai and eventually to the promised land. There was always a choice to be made – to do or not to do (a bit Shakespearian, huh?). Hashem never desired robots who followed commands without thought or choice. Rav Shaul recognized this when he wrote to the believers in Colossae,

But now He has reconciled you in Messiah’s physical body through death, in order to present you holy, spotless and blameless in His eyes—if indeed you continue in the faith, established and firm, not budging from the hope of the Good News that you have heard.

Colossians 1:22-23

It was never about obedience alone; there was and always is a component of choice. I joined the Marines voluntarily, because I wanted to do so. When I enlisted the first time, I thought I knew what was going to happen and accepted what would come. After being in for a while, I discovered that there was much more to the life of a Marine than what my limited understanding had thought. However, in spite of the newer or more complete understanding, I still reenlisted a couple more times, again voluntarily. When the time came that I left the Corps to pursue another course, that too was voluntary. 

Our lives are a series of choices made each and every day; choices to walk in the manner we know is right and godly or choices to walk in a manner contrary to what Scriptures tell us is the way to go. Either way, the choice is ours to make. We are faced with the same choice that Joshua challenged Bnei Israel after they entered the promised land,

Now therefore, fear ADONAI and worship Him in sincerity and in truth. Get rid of the gods that your fathers had worshipped beyond the River and in Egypt, and worship ADONAI. If it seems bad to you to worship ADONAI, then choose for yourselves today whom you will serve—whether the gods that your fathers worshipped that were beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will worship ADONAI!

Joshua 24:14-15

May we all choose to worship Adonai in sincerity and truth.

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

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