After 70 chapters of drama, intrigue, and adventure, (dotted with the occasional long list of ‘begats’), chapter 21 of Shemot sees the Torah’s balance shift from narrative to nomos. Parshat Mishpatim contains 52 commandments, more than all of the Torah combined until this point.
But unlike the apodictic imperatives of the ten commandments, these laws are case-based. Every law comes with a story, marked by the words ‘when’ and ‘if’. The lofty ideals of Sinai are brought down to earth, to the realities of daily living, and sometimes it’s a messy business. As much as I can appreciate the Torah’s regulation and limitation of slavery, it’s hard not to feel disturbed and disappointed that the Torah leaves slavery as an option at all, or that there are differences between slaves and free men in areas like the laws of damages. But for the Torah to be relevant to the real lives of the people receiving it, there was no choice but to “speak in the language of man”. To demand the end of slavery then would have been as meaningless and ineffective as demanding of us the immediate disposal of every one of our possessions that was made in China.
This might serve to justify certain laws as necessary for the Torah to be a “Torah of life”, but it raises difficult questions about how the Torah can be a “Torah of eternity”, relevant as much now as it was then. In order to accomplish this, God needs partners; He needs boots on the ground. Why does this chapter follow the laws of the altar, Rashi asks? To teach us that the Jewish high court of law, the Sanhedrin, was to be located inside the temple, next to the altar. God empowers the heroes of the Oral law to bring the Torah to life by interpreting it and applying it in the way appropriate for their particular generation. No wonder that in our chapter, whose every verse is the basis of literally hundreds of pages of rabbinic discussion, the court is referred to with God’s name, as ‘elohim‘. The story of these laws is still live, it is still bring written every day, and it is one full of drama, intrigue and adventure.
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. Chapter 21 was Sunday. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il