LAWS AND ORDERS – Mishpatim, Ex. 21-24 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Last week’s Torah reading gave us principles of right and wrong in the Ten Commandments. This week we go into detail with a basic code of law — what to do, what not to do, and the penalties for violating the laws.
Every civilization seems to come up with some kind of law code, with accompanying penalties. What sets Mishpatim apart? Let’s take some examples.
One distinguishing feature, of course, is the Eternal basis of these laws. Justice is not limited to the people of Israel. It applies to everyone in Israel’s borders. Historically, non-Jews residing in the country were not responsible for all the 613 commandments of the Torah, but they were held responsible for the “commandments of the children of Noah” – just 7 total. So foreign immigrants (legal or otherwise) had some duties. But they also had rights. The Sabbath law here in Mishpatim specifically includes them, saying “rest on the seventh day … and let the stranger also be refreshed.” Just a few sentences earlier we read: “Do not oppress (read “discriminate against”) a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Another remarkable law concerns treatment of domestic animals. If you see your enemy’s donkey – or any beast belonging to someone else – collapsing under a heavy burden, would you ignore that creature? Never mind who his owner is. Help him! Take some of that load off and let the poor donkey stand up! Kindness to animals comes right alongside the list of the holy days and their observance.
Just a word about penalties. Archeology of Biblical period buildings uncovers no big prisons. A holding cell here or there is about all. As we read here, and elsewhere in Torah and Talmud, penalties for breaking the law included execution, banishment, flogging, and economic punishment. Even the famous “eye for an eye” statute enunciated here was interpreted as economic penalty – the value of an eye or of a tooth. Including the law to release an indentured servant if the master knocked out that tooth. Our ancestors didn’t have to come up with huge amounts of public money to support long-term prisoners. What they did have to do was re-try a convicted offender if new evidence can prove him innocent. Of course they could do that only if the offender was still alive. But this law accepts the validity of new evidence.
And they didn’t even have DNA.
For more examples of Torah justice, read the section. We and our courts could learn from it today!