Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Parshat Mishpatim

There are four Sedra Shorts on Parshat Mishpatim. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah

The New Covenant

The Law

The Kid and the Mother's Milk

Slavery and the Law

The New Covenant

I have been approached on numerous occasions by Christian missionaries, telling me that if I was a sincere Jew who really believed in the Bible, I had no choice but to adopt Christianity, because it was a fulfillment of Judaism.

One of the sources they would bring to my attention is from Sefer Yirmiyahu:

"I will make a new covenant (
ברית חדשה) with the house of Israel…; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant…But this is the covenant…I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: 'Know the Lord'; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them." (Yirmiyahu 31:30-33)

I was able to show the missionaries the next pesukim which basically say that God will never reject Israel (see ibid 34-35), so if they believed the previous pesukim they should also believe these ones. Therefore, rather than me converting to Christianity, they should be converting to Judaism!!

Nevertheless, how do we explain the first set of pesukim that basically state that because Israel rejected the old covenant, God will make a new one, one inscribed on their hearts? Is the "old" Torah, given when we left Egypt, no longer valid?

The answer to this question can be found in this week's parsha. As part of the giving of the Torah, Moshe performs an elaborate ceremony, building altars, offering sacrifices and sprinkling blood over the altars and the people. "Moshe wrote all the words of the Lord and all the people answered in unison saying, 'All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do'…and he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, 'All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear'" (Shemot 24:4-7).

This ceremony ratifies Israel's acceptance of the Torah. Moshe first writes the terms of the agreement and Israel accepted it. Moshe then performs the ceremony, signifying the union between God and Israel. Finally, Moshe reads the agreement, now called "the book of the covenant" and the people ratify it once more.

What is "the book of the covenant"?

I would like to suggest that this "book of the covenant" is the "old" covenant, made "on the day…I took them…out of Egypt". It describes God's commitment to Israel, that He chooses them and promises them to be His people. It then describes Israel's commitment to be kingdom of priests and a holy nation and to keep the Torah. Moshe read it to the people and they accepted it.

Israel was unfaithful to it. This covenant therefore, needs to be renewed. God promises that He will renew the covenant. This time, however, it will not be written on stone; it will be written on Israel's hearts. It will be no longer necessary to teach about God. His existence will be so obvious, that all will know the Lord, from the greatest to the smallest.

The Torah itself will never be abrogated, but our commitment to it will be renewed.

The Law

God gave Israel the Torah in last week's parsha. This week, He proceeds to give Moshe a long list of laws. They include laws concerning the treatment of slaves, how to resolve conflicts between people and on returning lost animals of adversaries.

These laws appear to be pretty mundane compared to what Israel had just experienced. They stood at Sinai and G0d revealed Himself to them. He gave them the 10 Commandments and they experienced unprecedented events. Israel understood that there were to become a "kingdom of priests and a holy people".

Surely the next step for Israel should have been to receive guidelines on how to achieve an even closer communion with God, how to concentrate on their spiritual sides to attain even greater holiness and how to sanctify their very existence.

Yet instead, God gives them a series of laws about petty human relationships, which have little or no religious content to them. These laws could have been, and probably were, similar to the laws of other societies.

Nevertheless, this is precisely the Torah's point. Communion with God and achieving holiness is not to be attained through seclusion in the Bet Midrash, lengthy meditation in our prayers or through the punctilious observation of rituals. On the contrary, it can only be attained through complete interaction with society; through our day to day relationships.

The Torah wants Israel to create a society that is a: "kingdom of priests and a holy nation". However, as with any human interaction, conflict will occur. The Torah wants us to resolve the conflicts fairly and justly, to work towards social justice at all levels of society.

It can be no coincidence that the laws begin with our duties towards slaves. Israel themselves, had just been freed from "the house of bondage" and fully understood the unjust lot of the slave. The lowest echelon of society had to be treated with justice and to be given dignity and respect.

So too, when people argued. Their conflict needs to be resolved honestly by a principled judge. We even have duties to the animals of people we dislike, never mind the stranger, widow and orphan.

The roadmap to holiness is not in exclusion from society, but in our inclusion in our relationships with others. It is only when we learn to treat our fellow man, the way we would like to be treated, i.e. with honesty and respect, that we will have accomplished our mission at Sinai and become a true kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The Kid and the Mother's Milk

Following on from the Ten Commandments of last week's parsha, this week's parsha sees the introduction of many laws.

They include: "You shall not cook a kid (goat) in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19).

From this the Rabbi's teach us that we may not mix milk and meaty foods. We must ask the question as to ho the Rabbis made this jump. The passuk is talking specifically about goats. While we might possibly understand that it could be referring to all animals, how do they get from that to all milk?

Avraham Ibn Ezra notes that has two other mitzvot, that are similar to the mitzvah we just saw:

a) You shall not slaughter an ox or sheep, it and its offspring on the same day. (VaYikra 22:28)

b) If you come across a bird's nest on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] chicken or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the chicks or upon the eggs, you shall not take the young in front of the mother (Devarim 22:6-7)

Note that each case is slightly different than the other. In one case the mother and offspring are being killed on the same day, in another the offspring are being taken in front of the mother, while in our case, the mother's milk, a symbol of her fertility, is being used to marinate her offspring.

The main point is that each case involves an action that is permitted. It is permitted to slaughter a young calf. It is also permitted to slaughter the mother (on a different day). It is also permitted to take young chicks or eggs and it is also permitted to cook a young kid goat.

However, all three of these mitzvot draw their inspiration from a single idea: killing a mother and its children at the same time, taking young chicks in the sight of the mother or boiling a kid in its mother's milk, all reflects a lack of sensitivity to animal life. Therefore, when the Torah forbade the mixing of milk together, it used an example that would teach us sensitivity to animals and their feelings.

Now that we have examined why the Torah uses an example of an animal in its mother's milk, we must understand why it highlights goats and not other animals.

The answer to this lies in Mishlei (Proverbs). There the scribe sepks of a time when Israel will have abundance. He states: "enough goat milk for your food, for the food of your household, and sustenance for your maidens" (Mishlei 27:27).

It appears that the staple milk that people drank in biblical times was goat's milk, not cow's milk. Therefore, the Torah uses an example that ancient Israel could relate to.
Nevertheless, the Rabbis explain that this example was applicable to all types of meats and milk.

Therefore, it we can now understand how "You shall not cook a kid (goat) in its mother's milk" (Shemot 23:19), applies to all animals and all types of milk.

Slavery and the Law

In last week's parsha God gave the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. This week's parsha then lists a more detailed description of God's law. It begins with:

"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom without charge " (Shemot 21:2).

This is incredible. The very first law is about slavery. However, if we look carefully, it's not about actually the laws of slavery, but about freeing slaves. In fact, ver little is stated about the actual treatment and buying and selling of slaves. The very first law is about freeing slaves. It then goes on: "But if the slave says, "I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go free" (ibid 5) – the slave does not want to go free!!

The next law is about the female slave: "If a man sells his daughter as a maidservant, she shall not go free as the slaves go free" (ibid 7). The female slave does not go free. Why? The master or his son must marry her and provide her with "sustenance, her clothing, and her marital relations" (ibid 10). If he refuses to provide her this, then: she shall go free" (ibid 11).

The next law then talks about murder.

So as we can see, the Torah is not really talking to us about the laws of slavery. In fact, it is not really talking to us about laws at all. It is talking to us about a principle. People should not be enslaved, they should be free. The natural state of a person is to be free and not beholden to others.

Interestingly, this exactly how the Ten Commandments begin: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (ibid 20:2). God's first act for Israel was to free them from slavery. Their first act, therefore, should be to free slaves.

The Torah, therefore, while permitting slavery, clearly wants it abolished, for the sanctity of humanity is primary to all laws, as is implied by the fact that the serious punishment for murder and manslaughter immediately follow.


Blogger in the vanguard said...

Chassidus is full of articles that discuss Moshiach's revelation of the "NEW" Torah. As Yeshayahu says:
"כי תורה מאתי תצא", "WILL emerge" (51:4)

That "new Torah" we understand to mean related to the future, when the Era of Ultimate Redemption for the Jewish people manifests. That utopic era will transform the world by elevating the senses of the people. The new senses will no longer be as mundanely experiential as they now are. The "new Torah" refers to the new insights into Torah that Moshiach will teach us. After all, Moshiach will have even more חכמה than Moshe Rabbeinu. But the Torah - of course - remains the very same - and double of course - that it is meant for the Jewish people.

In chassidus we often speak of
תורה חדשה מאתי תצא

6:28 AM  

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