• Ellie Klein Goldman

Are You Serious Right Now?

Remember last week when our darling Israelites stood in awe at Mount Sinai and witnessed the power of God? Remember the simple instruction that God shared saying they just needed to worship one god and they would be protected until the end of time?

Turns out that was not (at all) the whole story. Bring on Parshat Mishpatim. It ain't gonna be quite as easy as the Cliff's Notes suggested folks.

Here's a brief snippet from the many paragraphs of detailed instructions about how the Israelites are now expected to engaged in the world.

Exodus 21:12-19

He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee. When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death. He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. He who kidnaps a man—whether he has sold him or is still holding him—shall be put to death. He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death. When men quarrel and one strikes the other with stone or fist, and he does not die but has to take to his bed— if he then gets up and walks outdoors upon his staff, the assailant shall go unpunished, except that he must pay for his idleness and his cure.

Oookay, but what if he can get up and walk outside only he needs more help than just a staff, like a little scooter, can the assailant still go unpunished? In all fairness, murder is serious and strict societal rules around killing one another probably makes solid sense. But it's not all so clearly critical. Here's a section a few verses later:

Exodus 21:33-34

When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal.

When a man opens a pit?? Was random pit digging rampant amidst the community? Were oxen and asses wandering hither and yon and falling into pits (to their death no less - how deep were these pits?) To make matters worse, after doing the work to dig a pit deep enough to kill an animal (presumably a substantial effort) not only does the digger have to pay the irresponsible owner who let their livestock wander unattended but now they have to deal with getting the dead animal out of their pit? Which brings us just a few verses ahead to this:

Exodus 2:4

When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard.

WHAT? What about the guy 10 verses before who let his ass wander willy-nilly through the fields ruining a perfectly good pit with their thousand pound carcass? In that case there's no punishment but if your goat eats a vineyard you have to pay up? I can only imagine two million Children of Israel standing wide eyed in the desert as this chapter unfolded. 😳

Why are the People presented with the diatribe of Mishpatim immediately following the glory and wonder of Sinai? Maybe God wanted to remind the Israelites that although God will protect them, regular everyday troubles will still exist and the community will need societal norms in order to navigate disputes and continue to get along.

As synagogue leaders, how can we take the lengthy, detailed, and somewhat overwhelming lists of Mishpatim and apply their lessons to our work?

  1. What value is there to front load "rules" and standards early in the process of community building?

  2. There is a time commitment necessary to spend time determining how to deal with every possible scenario. What are the benefits and costs of investing that time in synagogue communities for example; religious school, b'nai mitzvah, or investment spending policies.

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