Monday, January 24, 2011
Torah Portion Commentary - Mishpatim
Without order, society will become anarchic. Order prevents moral and physical corruption from replacing productivity and restraint. Therefore, establishing order is the most important foundation of any society. To establish order a hierarchal structure needs to exist. An ordered society is not an equilateral relationship. An equilateral relationship is when the value of God, humanity, and possessions are all considered equal. Unfortunately, when equilateral relationship exists there is no higher standard by which all things are judged. Therefore, there is no standard to define stealing, idolatry, or murder. In this state, society values nothing and strives for nothing. A society based on a hierarchal scheme maintains order because a hierarchy is established. As a result, the hierarchy has the right to establish the moral and legal obligations of each individual living in the society. For example, a society that places the greatest importance on human life, will create law that makes murder a greater offense than theft. In Mishpatim, we can see that HaShem's design for social order, specifically creates a hierarch of law. As a result, the deterrents for different transgressions are not all the same. The hierarchy of law established in Mishpatim, is founded on three pillars. These three pillars are spiritual, relational, and possessional.
In Mishpatim, at the highest pillar of the hierarchy of social order is spiritual. In the spiritual hierarchy, HaShem is at the top. This is because Yisrael was created to be a monotheocratic form of government. Order existed because in HaShem's theocratic society, there are laws and rulings established to define God's position. Without laws, HaShem knew the children of Yisrael would not know to serve Him. Judgments were designed to create a single head of state. This is recorded in Shemot 22:20, which states: "He that sacrifices to any god, except unto HaShem, he shall be utterly destroyed." Enforcement of the judgment required HaShem to pronounce the harshest punishment possible, a capital offense. Therefore, HaShem made it clear that anyone caught sacrificing to other gods would face total annihilation. HaShem's punishment meant that idolatry carried a penalty that extended beyond the physical world. The word translated total annihilation in Shemot 22:20, is Charam, and means totally dedicated or consumed. HaShem made it clear that idolatry in Yisrael would not be permitted. The offender would be required to forfeit his or her total being. In other words, the offender was required to be totally consumed, thereby forfeiting mind, body and soul. In fact, Shemot 22:20 is the only judgment in Mishpatim that pronounces the punishment of total annihilation. HaShem wanted Yisrael to be totally committed and to function as a theocratic society, therefore offerings to other gods brought eternal punishment.
In Mishpatim, the second pillar of the hierarchy is relational. In Mishpatim, human relations are second only to relations with HaShem. Therefore, an offense in the body of Yisrael carries a punishment almost as harsh as the punishment for idolatry. However, unlike idolatry, corporal transgressions did not warrant an eternal punishment. The punishment for corporal transgressions was physical death. The death penalty was prescribed primarily in these four cases: murder, kidnapping, cursing parents, and bestiality. Shemot 21:12 states, "He that smite a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death." To maintain order HaShem could not allow murder. From a spiritual perspective, murder was taking the life of an individual that had been created in the image of God. Therefore, murder was symbolic of destroying the image of HaShem. As a result, the murderer was required to forfeit his or her own life. Kidnapping was also punishable by death because it inhibited the God given right of freedom. When Yisrael was delivered from Egyptian bondage, the firstborn Egyptians were sacrificed. Therefore, Yisrael was redeemed by the death of the firstborn. In remembrance of the death of the firstborn, HaShem did not want Yisrael to return to bondage. Kidnapping is a crime that forces an individual into bondage. To deter kidnapping HaShem made the offense punishable by death. Cursing parents is also punishable by death. HaShem required the death penalty for cursing parents because it erodes the structure of authority. Allowing it would promote instability within the family, and eventually within Yisrael. Finally, in Shemot 22:19 we see that bestiality is also punishable by death. It totally defiles an individual. Any individual willing to commit bestiality is consumed with his or her own lust. They become totally consumed with pleasing themselves. People existing solely for physical pleasure become unrestrained and eventually lose all focus. As a result, they become lazy and do not contribute to society. Therefore, HaShem required the death penalty.
The final pillar in the hierarchy of law established by HaShem is possessional. Unlike relational and spiritual transgressions, crimes involving a possession only require restitution. The main areas discussed in the Torah, as areas were possessional law applies are involved are livestock, robbery, crops, and stewardship. Shemot 21:35 states, "if one man's ox hurt another's, that he die; then they shall sell the live ox, and divide the money of it; and the dead ox also they shall divide." When one ox killed another both the owner of the dead ox and the owner of the live ox are required to sell the living ox and divide the profit. As a result, both farmers shared the burden of loss. Therefore, neither farmer suffered to the full monetary extent of the loss. Shemot 22:3 states that a robber who commits a daylight robbery is also required to pay restitution. Robberies committed during the daytime are primarily done to steal physical possession and not to hurt anyone. Therefore, HaShem only required daylight robbers to make restitution for the theft. In Shemot, 22:5 we also see that restitution is required for the loss of crops. For example, when a neighbor's livestock eats the crops, the owner of the livestock is responsible for the damage. Therefore, restitution form the best of the responsible parties crops is required. Stewardship between friends and neighbors is also important. Shemot 22:14 states "if a man borrow ought of his neighbor, and it be hurt, or die, the owner thereof being not with it, he shall surely make it good." We can see that HaShem wanted the children of Yisrael to take responsibility for any item that was borrowed. When the owner was not with his borrowed property, restitution was required from the Yisraelite who borrowed the property. HaShem considered an individual's investment important. Therefore, He required restitution for crimes against possessions.
To maintain order HaShem formed a theocratic government and made judgments based on the magnitude of the crime. HaShem established punishments that matched the nature of the crime. The three punishments established, were total annihilation, physical death, and restitution. Total annihilation involved both the spiritual and the physical death of an individual. Total annihilation primarily occurred in cases involving spiritual transgressions. Physical death occurred in cases involving human relational interaction. Restitution was reserved for cases involving the theft or damage of another individual's possessions. As a result, of the hierarchy of law, order was maintained and Yisrael became an example of stability in the region.
By Rabbi Yaakov benYosef ABOUT Torah