Living by the Laws
Last week, we read about the Revelation at Sinai. A scant three months after the Exodus, God gathered the people of Israel at the base of the mountain and in a fiery and overwhelming display, proclaimed His Ten Utterances. How quickly had the fortunes of the people been transformed! A short time earlier, they had been Pharaoh's downtrodden slaves, with their broken bodies performing ceaseless labor as their numb minds were occupied with only a single, crude thought: to complete their daily tally of mud bricks. Suddenly liberated, they now stood attentive at the desolate mountain's feet and for the first time began to internalize the shattering message that human conscience must engender the exercise of the moral will. Henceforth, human life would have meaning, purpose and worth, and human labor – now freed from the oppressive shackles of unjust slavery – would be invested with dignity. But little did the people of Israel realize that God's brief proclamation of the Decalogue was only the precursor to grander things: a comprehensive code of laws and rituals that would touch upon every aspect of their existence, namely the Parasha of Mishpatim.
THE NEED FOR LAWS
Every thinking human being recognizes the necessity of laws in order to govern and to regulate social intercourse. Laws ensure that our innate drives for possession and power are held in check, deterring us from otherwise exercising our often unbridled and selfish passions. Laws secure peoples' bodies and things from being seized or stolen by others, providing us with the peace of mind that our labors and our lives are not exercises in futility. Laws provide a mechanism for restitution when damages, intentional or inadvertent, have been inflicted on one's fellow, ensuring that a person's rights to the well-being of his body and to the safety of his belongings are respected. Occasionally, laws may even inspire us to greater achievements, by reminding us that justice and concern for others, the hallmarks of altruism, are at the foundations of a model society. In short, laws are the absolute antithesis of the brick pits, where human lives are worthless, the products of one's labors are cruelly appropriated, and concern for the welfare of others is suicidal.
In a marvelous summation of the thrust of the legal system introduced in Parashat Mishpatim, the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) informs us that "the crux of the matter is that a man must not perpetrate acts of violence, nor utilize force to overpower those that are weaker than him" ("short" commentary to 21:1). The truest measure of a moral system, then, is how it relates to the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, those who typically lack the natural protections that fame and fortune confer. Thoughts of balm, indeed, to minds once held in throes to the terror of the taskmaster's whip. The Ibn Ezra goes on to enumerate the three broad categories of laws that constitute the Parasha's larger part, listing the various elements that are stated in each section, and demonstrating how they in turn are expressions of not only their particular section, but of the all-inclusive principal as well.
THE SECTIONS OF THE CODE AND WHAT FOLLOWS
Thus, the first section enumerates the laws concerning OPPRESSION OF ANOTHER'S BODY, and begins with the regulation of servitude (21:1-11). This is followed by passages enumerating additional bodily damages including striking another person or one's parents (21:12-17), kidnapping, and causing another a loss of limb or other injury to their organs, whether with one's body, one's animals or one's possessions (21:18-22:3). The Torah continues by then delineating the second section that deals with HARM TO ANOTHER'S PROPERTY. Damages to the field and vineyard or to their respective products are mentioned (22:4-5), followed by the laws of custodianship and the care of borrowed articles (22:6-6-14), the seduction of minors (22:15-16), and regulations concerning lending money (22:24-26). Next, the Parasha turns its attention to its third concern, laws that are formulated in order to restrict what Ibn Ezra terms the "VIOLENCE THAT ONE MAY PERPETRATE IN SECRET." These include various ritual infractions (22:27-30), bearing false witness, favoring litigants, failing to restore lost articles, perverting justice and taking bribes or oppressing the convert (23:1-9).
Thus, considering Ibn Ezra's tripartite division, the code is arranged according to a hierarchical structure that aims to foster concern for not only another's body, but for their possessions and welfare as well. Violence is often overt and obvious, but one can also perpetrate more subtle crimes that are no less insidious. The code's division thus mirrors the organizing principle of the Ten Utterances. In the Decalogue, the final five matters that pertain to our treatment of others are also arranged in what amounts to not only a descending order of severity but also an ascending order of moral sensitivity: the prohibition of killing is followed by the ban on adultery (OPPRESSION OF ANOTHER'S BODY), theft (HARM TO ANOTHER'S PROPERTY), and finally by the prohibition of bearing false witness and coveting (VIOLENCE THAT ONE MAY PERPETRATE IN SECRET).
Lastly, the code is completed by the inclusion of further rituals, but this time with an emphasis on their social value. Thus, the Sabbatical year is observed in order to provide the poor with an opportunity for equal access to the produce of the privately owned field, while the celebration of the Shabbat grants the servant the chance to enjoy rest from his labors just like his master (23:10-12). The provisions that follow, to celebrate the three pilgrim festivals and to appear at the central shrine, are both denunciations of idolatry (23:13-19), for allegiance to its false tenets undermines the moral laws.
Significantly, this legal code is followed in the Parasha by the promise of the land, a clear implication that only fealty to its tenets, including the categorical rejection of the Canaanites' moral relativism, will ensure the viability of Israel's future state:
Behold I send before you My messenger to guard you on the way and to bring to you to the place that I have prepared for you…Do not bow down to their gods nor serve them, and do not follow their practices…rather, serve God your Lord for He will bless your food and your water…I will slowly drive them out from before you, until you become numerous enough to inherit the land. I will place your borders from the Sea of Reeds until the Mediterranean, and from the wilderness until the Euphrates… (23:20-33).
CONSIDERING ONE EXAMPLE
Let us turn our attention to a single one of the Parasha's laws, for its study not only provides us with an important appreciation of Ibn Ezra's thesis, but also highlights the great transformation that the people of Israel are called upon to undergo as they leave Egypt behind and embrace Sinai's message. Embedded in a passage that combines fundamental ritual doctrines with basic concerns for the disadvantaged, the prohibition of oppressing the convert is spelled out:
One who sacrifices to any other deities other than God alone will be banned. Do not hurt the feelings of the convert nor oppress him, for you too were foreigners in the land of Egypt. Do not mistreat a widow or an orphan. If you mistreat them, then I will surely hear their cry when they cry out to Me. I will then become angry and slay you by the sword, so that your wives will be widows and your children will be orphans (22:19-23).
Here, the recurring linkage between immorality and idolatry, a connection that the Torah never fails to emphasize, is once again stated. A society that champions polytheism cannot by definition promulgate or enforce moral absolutes, because a code of law can carry only as much authority as its authors. If there are many gods, contentious, quarrelsome and unruly, then the "moral law" that they manage to produce (if they at all have an interest in so doing) will tend to be arbitrary, chaotic and non-binding.
Significantly, the convert is here grouped with the widow and the orphan, and in each case the Torah reinforces its legislation with powerful and unsettling imagery. To oppress the convert or the foreigner is to have forgotten the sting of Egyptian servitude, the terrible pain that pertains when one is treated as an outsider. To be inconsiderate of the widow or orphan is to invite a Divine response that is not only harsh and severe in the extreme, but, more importantly, an ironic reformulation of the most basic of moral principles: one must treat others as one would want to be treated in turn.
THE MISHNAIC RULING
What is most remarkable about the law of oppressing the convert, however, is that it does not address the physical damages that can be assessed and restored according to empirical evaluation. It does not even speak of the harm that one can inflict on another's things under the guise of feigned concern, that is to say the "violence perpetrated in secret" of which Ibn Ezra so eloquently spoke. Rather, the prohibition of oppressing the convert begins to address a different dimension of damage, namely that which can be caused to a person's feelings of self-worth or to their emotional well-being. On this matter, the relevant Mishna in Tractate Bava Metzia (4:10) is particularly enlightening. After detailing the laws of commercial overcharge that sometimes can result in the annulment of a sale, the Mishna says:
Just as there is a law of oppressive overcharge in matters of buying and selling, so too there is oppression by words. One should not say to the seller: "how much is this object?" when one has no intention of purchasing it. If a person was a Ba'al Teshuva then one should not say to him: "remember your earlier deeds!" If a person was a descendent of converts then one should not say to him: "remember the deeds of your ancestors!", for the verse states: "do not hurt the feelings of the convert nor oppress him" (Shemot 22:20).
Like its Scriptural precursor, the Mishnaic chapter here groups damages to possessions and property with damages to the spirit. There is oppression by deed (selling an object to an unsuspecting buyer for much more than it is worth) and there is oppression by word, but the feature common to both Mishnaic categories is that they address THE VIOLENCE THAT ONE MAY PERPETRATE IN SECRET. But here again, our particular Mishna addresses the so-called violence that is carried out not against the body or property of the other but rather against their soul. What could be more innocent than an off-the-cuff remark to the seller about the price of his wares, while all the while the potential buyer has absolutely no intent of acquiring the object at that time? What could be more harmless than a backhanded compliment to the Ba'al teshuva or convert, especially words that appear to have the desirable effect of highlighting their hard-won achievements? And what could be more destructive? For such actions, rules the Mishna, one cannot be held accountable in a court of law, but only in the arena that matters most – our relationship with God.
As material beings, we justifiably tend to focus on the material aspects of our lives. Most of our concerns pivot around our bodies and our things, or those of our loved ones. Most of our laws also address these very areas. We therefore tend to define the level of our moral achievements in material terms as well, as if ethical development could be gauged solely by our treatment of another's person or possessions. The Decalogue, the Parasha of Mishpatim, and especially Ibn Ezra's insightful comments alert us to another possibility, to the existence of a plane of moral exploit that addresses not bodies or things, but rather emotions, feelings and the spirit. On that daunting plane, there are no courts to sentence the assailant, no police to enforce their ruling, and not even the threat of human laws to deter aggression. There is only the human conscience, alone and unmonitored, but nonetheless guided by God's eternal word, to freely decide how to proceed.