Mishpatim – “Judgements”

This week’s parasha is entitled Mishpatim, which is translated “Statutes” or “Judgments” and covers Exodus 21-24. This section of the Torah contains extensive case law; fines and/or punishments for a broad spectrum of offenses having mostly to do with personal injury and property. Everything in this parasha demonstrates that, as beings created in the image of God, we have innate dignity and worth. But everything in Mishpatim also demonstrates that we are a fallen race; that because of the rebellion of our first parents in the Garden of Eden, the image of God in us was marred, and we are prone to selfishness, greed and indifference to the needs of others, and that those sinful tendencies need to be reigned in.

Though there is much that is worthy of commentary in this parasha, for our purposes this morning I’d like to highlight two brief passages, each found in chapter 23. The first is verse in two:

Do not follow the crowd in doing evil. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the sin nature is cowardice; to be more specific, the lack of moral courage to stand against or apart from the crowd or the majority when they are doing wrong. We use terms like “peer pressure” to describe it, but to be perfectly honest, that’s a cop-out – putting the blame on the crowd for our own weakness. When we fail to speak out or to act contrary to the majority for fear of what they will think about us or say about us, we act contrary to both the Torah and the Brit Chadashah.

Imagine, for a moment, the Bible history we wouldn’t have, were it not for the moral courage of certain individuals. Suppose, for example, Daniel and his three companions had gone along with the others and compromised and eaten Nebuchadnezzar’s food, and drank his wine, all of which had been dedicated to idols? Suppose Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego had gone along with everyone else in Babylon and bowed down to the king’s golden image? You might argue they wouldn’t have been thrown into the blazing furnace, but then we would not read about the mighty power of God to preserve them, and whose steadfastness in the face of death earned them Nebuchadnezzar’s respect and set an example of moral courage that has inspired generations of young people.

For that matter, consider the implications if Shifra and Puah, the Jewish midwives, had complied with the murderous dictate of Pharaoh?

And consider what might have been a much better outcome for Israel if Aaron and a few other leaders, rather than capitulating to the demand of the majority that he make an idol (the golden calf), had stood his ground and called on the people to repent and be faithful to Adonai?

Imagine what we would be lacking if Isaiah ben Amoz had reconsidered and decided not to ‘rock the boat’ when told by God to cry out to the nation and declare it’s sin? And what of Jeremiah? Of Joshua and Caleb?

Do not follow the crowd in doing evil.

It is on account of the courage of men like William Wilberforce, who for years stood alone in Parliament, that slavery was eventually abolished in England. His example inspired key individuals in the United States to take up the cause. Harriet Tubman risked her life repeatedly in order to defy what was an evil status quo. Eventually the hearts of the masses would be persuaded, but initially it required individuals like these with moral courage to take an unpopular stand.

And if men and women like this could put their own lives and careers at risk to not follow the crowd in doing evil, certainly you and I can weather a little disapproval or perhaps mild ridicule for not going along with everyone else.

The second of these passages is found in verses 4 and 5:

“If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it.”

Boy, that sounds really ‘New Covenant’ doesn’t it? We are commanded to do good even for our enemy! As an example, we are not to turn a blind eye when our enemy’s donkey has wandered away and we find it, or whose donkey collapses under its load. Picture this: you have a guy next door that really doesn’t like you – maybe is even hostile towards you. And one day you see him broken down on the side of the road with a flat tire. That’s roughly the equivalent. And you stop and park your car and help him put on the spare tire. It’s pretty hard to keep hating someone who has come to your aid in a time of distress. And isn’t that precisely the point? By loving even our enemies, the hatred begins to crumble; and when this guy who used to hate you asks why you would help, you tell them about God’s love for us when we were still His enemies. The Kingdom of Heaven is built up in just such ways – one heart at a time.

And, of course, this brings to our minds the words of the Master:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Consider that the prophet Jonah ran away from his commission to go to the hated Assyrians, and later only fulfilled it grudgingly. Ultimately it did not go well for the Assyrians. And consider that, centuries later, another Jewish man, Simon bar Jonah, embraced his commission to go to a Gentile (a Roman Centurion – there was not more loathsome individual to the Jewish people of the First Century). And the result was the beginning of the Good News going to men and women of every nation and language and people!

Loving your enemy has very little to do with your feelings. It is a matter of simple obedience to the Word of God. But the fact is that right feelings tend to follow right actions. So this week if Adonai gives you an opportunity to show kindness to someone who in your book doesn’t deserve it, seize that opportunity. Love your enemy. It’s both Torah and Brit Chadashah. And through it Messiah will be glorified.