D'var Torah:  Mishpatim

Jonathan Thau
(given at his Bar Mitzvah)



My Parsha is called Mishpatim. Mishpatim means sentences, or in this case laws. Mishpatim tells us 56 civil laws that the Jews must follow.


In the Parsha before Mishpatim, Yitro, Moses finds judges for the people and then travels to Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments.  By getting the commandments and choosing judges Moses helps create a real civilization. He gives God's most important words to the people for being a Jew and he sets up ways for them to handle their own arguments.


When we think of the laws that the Jews received we think of the Ten Commandments. But Mishpatim talks about different kinds of laws. There are laws that deal with property. There are laws that deal with how to treat people. There are laws that deal with justice and the start of a legal system; and there are laws that deal with how the Jews should respect God. The laws all deal with the fact that people must be able to follow rules and to accept things. They also teach how we can keep our trust with God and live in Peace. 


All the laws from Mishpatim evolved from the Ten Commandments. None of them were little laws; they were all serious laws that dealt with real problems at the time. There were laws about how to treat slaves. God didn't just say There should be no slavery- all the slaves should be free because that couldn't happen. People wouldn't have listened to God. They had bought slaves. They used them. People would have rebelled against God if he got rid of slavery.


The good thing about God putting in rules for how to treat slaves was that without them many of the slaves would have been worked so hard that they would have died. It would have been Egypt again, but within our own kind. In the Torah God tells us over and over again not to oppress other people. This part of Mishpatim is one of the ways that God makes this clear.


There were only two laws that I had trouble with in Mishpatim. The first one says that if a child strikes his parents then the child should be put to death. I didn't think this should be a cause for death. What's done is done. People need to learn from what they did and move on.


Another law that I found was harsh was the law that said that if an owner knew an ox was dangerous, and it got free and killed a person, then the owner should be put to death. I thought this law did not recognize that animals have instincts, and that even if a person has tried to contain a dangerous animal they still can get out. Animals can not be perfectly controlled, like my dog Java for example, and people should not be put to death because of this.


Maybe this harshness had to exist back then because there were no developed laws. People couldn't go to jail for terrible things. There was no jail. God had to be harsh to keep people in line. They had just come out of slavery and had not learned how to treat each other as free people. Today, neither of these laws exist. People are not allowed to kill their children for striking them, and people are not put to death when animals go rogue.


All in all I find that if you look back at the laws of the ancient Jews you'll find that they are quite similar to the laws of today. They seem different but the truth is that they have just evolved as the years passed. The laws have changed but what the laws are about haven't. They still teach us how to treat other people, and how to have respect for property, and they give us an understanding of what God expects.


Mishpatim does not end with the laws. Mishpatim ends with God promising Moses how he will protect the Jews, and what he will do to the enemies of the Jews if they follow his laws. Moses then ascends Mount Sinai to forge these smaller laws in stone.


Although I like the laws, I was upset to learn how harsh and cruel God was in the last part of Mishpatim. God tells the Jews all the laws they must follow. He then says If you do all that I say I will hate your enemies. My angel will go before you and bring you among the Amorites the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, Hivites and Yebusites and I will annihilate them.


God then tells the Jews I will send deadly wasps ahead of you and they will drive out the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites before you. I will drive them out little by little giving you a chance to increase and fully occupy the land. I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the Philistine Sea. I will give the land's inhabitants into your hand and you will drive them before you. Do not allow them to reside in your land.


This was my question: If God was the real God, the God of everybody, then he was also the God of the Canaanites and all the other people. How could he be prepared to annihilate people? How could he favour the Jews this way? If he was prepared to destroy some of his own people, was he really a true God?


I don't have these answers. Some people believe that they have the answers, but they don't. They think that it's okay to force people from their land, or to kill people, but they don't have God's understanding. They haven't talked to God; they are just putting their own ideas in.


What God tells the Jews really bothers me, but I still believe in God. My Parsha makes me remember the difficult questions at the end, with the good stuff too. I'm going to keep them both with me. I'm not going to just forget them.  I think everybody has to find their own answers to important questions and their own relationship with God.


Shabbat Shalom



Return to "Teachings from Our Rabbis and Friends" list.


[ Home ]

[ Asiyah ]

[ Yetzirah]

[ Briyah]

[ Atzilut]



( Doing )

( Feeling )

( Knowing )

( Being )