A Continuity of Law that Values the Needs of the Community

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1−24:18

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Reuven Greenvald

A group of people raise their hands to the sky

The word for “and” in Hebrew is not a separate word: it is a one-letter prefix, the letter vav. Sometimes it is translated as and, other times it is best translated as “but”; sometimes, vav is a participle that doesn’t need to be translated. In the opening sentence of Parashat Mishpatim, the translation used in the Reform Movement’s Chumash discounts the vav that is attached to first word: 

These are the rules [mishpatim] that you shall set before them. (Ex. 21:1; JPS trans. [1962] in W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [2005])

While the contemporary biblical scholarship behind the modern translation might be right on the linguistic history, the ear attuned to later Hebrew, from the time of the Mishnah until today, cannot help but hear the first verse as: 

And these are the rules that you shall set before them. (V’eileh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem.)

For ancient and medieval commentators, as well as some modern scholars, the detailed list of laws in this parashah is a continuation of the giving of the Ten Commandments, bringing to a close the covenant ceremony that started at the Sinai Event (Ex. 19-20). The word, and, emphasizes that connection – a connection that becomes clearer when, after three chapters (Ex. 21-23) of seemingly disconnected laws, the narrative text picks up again at the foot of Mount Sinai (Ex. 24). In this line of interpretation, we are to understand the Ten Commandments as general principles that inform the specific laws that follow (see Deut. 4:12-14 and see the Rabbinic midrash on Exodus, M’chilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Tractate N’zikin).   

It’s not just a legal connection that links Parashat Mishpatim with preceding chapters, it’s also the liberation narrative that underlies laws connected in this section. Some of the connections are explicit, for example:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)

And while the text doesn’t clearly point it out, it is reasonable to connect some of the laws opening this week’s reading that attempt to put ethical limitations on servitude with the Israelites’ own experience of slavery (Ex. 21:2-11, 20-21, 26-27). 

Another powerful literary link made possible by the editorial juxtaposition of Mishpatim to the Exodus narrative can be found in considering these laws: 

When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back [to him]. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it [with him]. (Ex. 23:4-5)  

On a literary level, the beleaguered Israelites, who are not yet fully recovered from escaping their Egyptian enemy, are now being instructed that there are certain values that take precedence over conflict. What rationale propels this ancient version of the modern-day Geneva Conventions?  

In her brilliant and moving poem “Each of Us Has a Name,” the Israeli poet, Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (June 20, 1914 – April 30, 1984) suggests that in living between the dialectics of the human experience, we find our essence. As a poet who crossed many boundaries in her long life, Zelda – known most often by just her first name – adds this to the long list of things that define us: 

Each of us has a name 
given by our enemies 
and given by our love 

Those who take Exodus 23:4-5 seriously will have the reputation, even among their enemies, as people who respect ownership rights and are compassionate toward living things – two values that could literally be trampled on during a period of conflict (see also Deut. 20:19-20 about protecting trees during battle). Reading these laws narrowly (apart from the other Torah passages that deal with the concept of enemy), we want to peel away textual layers to better understand what the verses means by “enemy.” By moving certain civic norms outside of a conflict situation, the Torah seems to be teaching that there are deeper causes that make enemies out of people. 

One attempt to locate those deeper causes is found in the Rabbinic midrash on Exodus known as the M’chilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, which was edited and translated into English by one of the earliest teachers and scholars at Hebrew Union College, Professor Jacob Z. Lauterbach (1873-1942). In response to “your enemy’s ox” (Ex. 23:4), the M’chilta follows its usual format, offering side-by-side opinions for consideration. Here we have four interpretations from second century Rabbis (cited here from the Jewish Publication Society’s Lauterbach translation:  

The Ox of Thine Enemy. R. Josiah says: This means of a heathen worshiping idols. For thus we find everywhere that the heathen are designated as enemies of Israel … [cites Deut. 21:10 and  23:10 as proof texts] … R. Eliezer says: This passage refers to a proselyte who has relapsed into his former evil predilection. R. Isaac says: This passage refers to an apostate Israelite. R. Jonathan says: This passage refers to an Israelite. How then can Scripture say: “Thine enemy”? It is simply this: If one has beaten his son or has had a quarrel with him, he becomes his enemy for the time being. (trans., Lauterbach [Philadelphia: JPS, 2004], p. 469) 

For the first three ancient Sages, an enemy is inherently one who adheres to a belief system that is expressed through polytheism, which they understood to be ethically inferior. Liberal Judaism today would not take such a blanket ethical stand against other faiths, since we have learned to appreciate wisdom in a pluralistic sense. However, our society in general is grappling with questions about the relationship between religious ideologies and extreme intolerance: some people consider certain faith adherents to be enemies of what they themselves stand for. 

Rabbi Jonathan’s opinion takes the idea of enemy and inserts it into human relations on a personal and intimate level. If we find ourselves in even a temporary quarrel, we must be mindful of the impact our conflict can have on those around us. By allowing one’s quarrel to lead to the disrespect of property and life, we extend the effects to society at large by loosening the structures that preserve coexistence.  

Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).

Laws that Unify the People

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Adam Bellows

A group of people join handsAs Rabbi Greenvald points out, the letter, vav, at the beginning of a Hebrew word can mean both “and” and “but.” It is astounding that one prefix can mean two disparate things. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s (2016) definitions for the word, and, include, “used as a function word to indicate connection or addition especially of items within the same class or type – used to join sentence elements of the same grammatical rank or function.” Its definitions for the word, but, include, “except for the fact”; “on the contrary”; and “with the exception of.” Whereas the word, and, is inclusive and a continuation of an idea or thought, the word, but, is meant to separate and break apart.

Yet in Jewish mysticism, the letter vav is strictly regarded as synonymous with continuation and connection. In his mystical work, Letters of Light (Sichos in English, 2003), Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin writes, “While the design of the vav looks like a hook, the word vav actually means ‘hook’ ” (see Ex. 26:32). A hook is something that holds two things together. It is also a means to connect the spiritual and the physical.” Also noting the shape of the letter, Raskin writes, “The form of the vav can also represent a chute which connects a higher level to a lower level.”  

According to the 11th-century commentator Rashi (1040-1105), this vav indicates that the text of Parashat Mishpatim is a continuation of the previous thought. Yet Rashi notes that if the first word of the parashah were, eileh (these) rather than v’eileh, (and these) it would act to separate this parashah from the previous one. Thus, the vav, once again, unifies and connects.

Vav is meant to unify and connect: it is meant to make whole the broken, to make complete the separate. Raskin points out that the letter vav represents completion because its g’matria is six. He writes, “Six also represents completion, because something that is surrounded on all six sides – north, south, east, west, above, and below – is complete.” So what does it mean for us that the vav at the beginning of this parashah references mishpatim or “laws”? Perhaps from this we can learn that our laws are meant to be used in connection with one another. No law is separate from another. The entire Torah as a single corpus is what governs our lives.

Yet perhaps we may also understand the phrase, v’eileh hamishpatim, to indicate that the laws are meant to unify the people. According to the Jewish Publication Society translation (1962), the full verse reads, “These are the rules that you shall set before them” (Ex. 21:1). It is not that God provided rules to which we had no access. God turned the rules over to us via Moses. Thus, the rules became our own, meant to unify the People of Israel.

Rabbi Adam Bellows is the assistant rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis, MO.

Reference Materials

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 566-592; Revised Edition, pp. 511-538
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 427-450
Haftarah, Jer. 34:8-22; 33:25-26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 714−716; Revised Edition, pp.539–541

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