Mishpatim is one of those law-laden parshiyot that we have the tendency to gloss over. It follows the Ten Commandments as a “second set” of rules given at Sinai and sets forth no less than 53 mitzvot, for those of you keeping track at home.
The Ten Commandments are a set of laws between God and the Israelites. While they cover stealing and murder, etc., as does much of this week’s reading, they do not address punishment or restitution.
That’s where this week’s parsha comes in.
The numerous mitzvot of Mishpatim define a social code among Israelites and lay out civil ordinances, establishing a society based on law and order. In fact, this is where we see the often quoted “eye for an eye” – the go-to phrase meaning “let the punishment fit the crime.” The formulation of the laws you’ll read here is historically typical of Near Eastern legal codes of the time: “If ABC happens, then XYZ shall happen.” But there is no doubt these laws exhibit Israelite ethics, especially when it comes to murder, property crimes, treatment of strangers, and ritual.
So, why separate the Ten Commandments from the laws of Mishpatim? Perhaps it’s because as Jews we have two distinct, but inseparable, responsibilities. We must accept our responsibility to God and to humanity. We can’t be good Jews without also being good people. While the Ten Commandments lay things out in broad strokes, Mishpatim begins to fill in some of the fine print.
Being Jewish is more than keeping mitzvot. It means being part of one people who take responsibility for each other in the context of a larger society. And that requires us to obey societal laws as well as practice ethics that are in line with our Jewish values.
So, that’s Mishpatim in a nutshell.
Ah, but nothing is that cut and dried. Here comes the deep dive.
The parsha begins with intricate and somewhat bizarre set of laws regarding Hebrew slaves. We went over the issue and irony of our ancestors keeping slaves in a study session not too long ago, so if you missed it, come to study more often.
Yup, the Israelites kept Hebrew slaves.
Troubling as that is, from all accounts, they were treated reasonably well. Housed, clothed, and fed. Got Shabbat off. There was even conjugal…stuff happening.
These bondsmen were hard luck sorts. They were a mixture of poor folks who indentured themselves for basic support, convicted thieves “working off” their restitution sentences, and debtors trying to get out from under.
The first set of laws (and the only one we will talk about, don’t worry) is perhaps the strangest. It starts out nicely; slaves are to be let go, scot-free, after six years of service. Then it goes on: “But, if the bondsman declares, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children - I shall not go free,’ his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or doorpost, and his master shall bore through his ear with the awl, and he shall serve him forever. (21:5,6)
So, I’ve read a lot of commentary about this passage. It seems “forever” might not really mean “forever,” because all slaves go free at the jubilee year. Maybe. And there is some debate: Was it the left ear or the right ear? Was it the door or the door POST (there are pages on this)? Was it a literal piercing or a ceremonial thing?
Does it matter? Kind of.
We just went through Ten Commandments and an exhaustive list of ordinances that were supposed to hone us into a righteous, ethical people and there are still men who would rather have one of their ears either literally or figuratively pierced against either a door or a doorpost than live free among our ancestors?
Oh, this is getting troubling again, and my collective memory is all hazy on this period so I’m going to jump to some modern day applications. Objections?
After a quick Google search, I saw that plenty of Rabbis use this parsha as an opportunity to deliver half-baked pep talks on the dangers of being a “slave” to material things or why one should not be afraid to leave the so-called “easy” life of servitude. That’s nonsense. No one can judge or make choices for other people. Not when so many of us are a paycheck away from disaster. And, let me tell you, sometimes a life of service is one of the most noble there is.
Back to the commentary.
Midrash says it’s the ear, specifically, that should be bored because it failed to listen at Sinai. Instead of serving God, the slave chose to listen to and obey a human master instead.
With this explanation, these verses reveal a small but very significant detail: Sometimes the very thing we need to be taking in – through our ears, into our hearts – is exactly what we choose to tune out.
And I think that should be our takeaway for this evening.
Yes, it’s difficult and even uncomfortable to quiet your mind enough to listen to yourself, that God within you. And this is especially true if we are down on our luck like the bondsmen. Problems are real, pain is real. We close ourselves off just like they did and fill the void or the silence with something, anything. Our master becomes noise, distraction, and negativity. Perhaps even false comfort. All of that keeps us from truly listening. From letting what matters – from what can help us improve our situation and lift us up – get in.
We are Reconstructionists. And our God has many names, many forms, and many voices.
In fact, that voice that spoke to our ancestors at Sinai – whom the Hebrew slaves didn’t hear– is it at all possible that it’s the same one that sounds a bit like mine, or yours, and keeps us awake with inspiration at 2 AM? Or the one that sounds like the encouraging words of a friend over a cup of coffee? Or like absolute silence in a snowstorm?
I don’t know.
But if we don’t listen...if we don't listen, we’ll never be free to find out.
*Written & delivered me at an actual shul this past shabbat.