Today’s Torah portion is titled, “Mishpatim,” which means “judgements.” It covers Exodus, Chapter 21:1 – 24:18. This 4 chapter parasha contains over 10% of the 613 commandments found in the Torah.
We often forget that the ancient world was a very brutal place. People were maimed or put to death for the smallest of offenses. What the Lord is doing through our parasha today is laying down a code of conduct on the type of judgements that should occur when different offenses are committed or different situations occur.
Chapter 21 covers the treatment and length of service of Hebrew slaves. If an Israeli male was sold into slavery, slavery could only last 6 years, in the 7th year, that slave would be set free unless that individual chose to stay with his master. A female slave needed to be taken care of by the master or she could be redeemed. The master was not allowed to sell her to foreigners. Chapter 21 also covers justice in premeditated attacks, fights that occur out of quarrels and issues involving the beating of slaves. The principle regarding these is stated in verse 24: “…eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Many people mistake the interpretation of this verse in terms of if something happens to a person, then revenge needs to be extracted, but the interpretation is really the appropriate level of the punishment or monetary compensation. Restitution needed to be provided at the proper level of the damage. The rest of Chapter 21 covers various situations where oxen might have caused damage to someone else’s crops or gored another individual, etc.
Chapter 22 covers the appropriate justice to apply in cases of theft, arson and money or property lending. We are also given the following admonition in verse 28: “You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” In other words, neither God nor the judge who applies the justice should be viewed negatively by those to whom justice is being applied.
Chapter 23 continues with admonitions regarding moral issues: Not bearing false witness, not following the group in terms of doing evil, not being partial and being respectful of other people’s property, even if that other person is your enemy.
In Chapter 23, the importance of observing the Sabbath is restated along with the instruction to celebrate the three national feasts, which in themselves encompass the 7 major holidays outlined in Leviticus Chapter 23: The Feast of Passover, which also includes the Feast of Matzo and the Feast of First Fruits, the Feast of Pentecost, which occurs 50 days after First Fruits and the Feast of Ingathering, which would also include the Feast of Trumpets and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and which all occur in the 7th month of the Jewish calendar.
Chapter 24 is about sealing the deal. The Lord presented some very important principles in this section, and these had been put before the people. Chapter 21:1: “Now these are the ordinances which you are to set before them.” In other words, God told Moses to put these conditions for consideration before the people. It is as if God is saying to the people, “This is what I want you to do; do you agree?” In Chapter 24, we have the people’s response, verse 7: “Then he (Moses) took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” In order to seal the agreement of this covenant between the Lord and the people, Moses took the blood of sacrifices that had been made and sprinkled it both on the altar of the sacrifice and on the people. The parasha ends with Moses going up Mount Sinai to begin to spend the 40 days and nights with the Lord and to receive the tablets of the testimony (the Ten Commandments).
What are some of the lessons we can learn from today’s parasha?
First we learn that the application of justice must be done in proportion to the offense that was committed. Certain offenses require less punishment, others require more. We also learn that we are not to take justice into our own hands. There are those who have been appointed to positions above the rest of the people who will make these determinations. And, in the final analysis, the Lord will judge as He sees fit.
We can also learn about the importance of setting time apart for God, at least on a weekly basis. God has given us one day each week to set aside for Him. While we should be walking with God each and every day, we have one designated day, which can be of our choosing (see Romans 14) to honor God. We also have special times during the year to set apart for God. God has spread his festivals throughout the year so that we can worship him at those special times and in special ways.
And lastly, in the same way God laid these principles before the Israelis and they gave their assent to be obedient, so too, each of us today, must adhere to the principles and conditions laid out by Yeshua, the Messiah, for our lives. We must recognize our own sin, and that it is impossible for us to get rid of our sin ourselves, but that through acceptance of the Messiah in our own lives and giving Him our obedience, He can cleanse us of our sins so that we can walk with Him through this world, on a path that is headed towards our eternal home in the New Jerusalem.