Mishpatim 5777 - 2017 Marginalize Anger and Revenge with Justice

Post date: Feb 23, 2017 4:40:53 PM

Parshat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18

As the name of the parsha – Mishpatim – suggests, many laws are conveyed in the chapters of Shemot (Exodus) we read this week. The 3-letter root of the word mishpatim (laws) is shin-pey-tet. This root is variously translated as to act as a law-giver, judge, or governor; to decide controversy; to execute judgment; to be discriminating; to be vindicating; and to be condemning and punishing. In all of these contexts, the root appears to be strongly tied to decision-making and determining of consequences. Instead of acting, the root shin-pey-tet, is about reacting.

The laws and consequences described throughout parshat Mishpatim reveal a particular kind of biblical reaction to negative events. The events described range from lending money, to causing harm to an ox or other farm animal, to murder. Each event is governed by pre-determined consequences laid out in the Torah.

Serving as the model for our current legal system, the Torah not only describes discrete events and the related consequences, but also distinguishes events by the intentions of the actors involved. For example, the Torah notes the famous case of the goring ox. In the first context, the Torah states that “if an ox gores a man or a woman, that they die, the ox shall be surely stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten.” The Torah goes on to note that the owner of the ox shall be naki – literally translated to “clean,” though here meaning innocent or not at fault.

However, “if the ox was known to gore in time past, and warning hath been given to its owner, and he hath not kept it in, but it has killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.” Rashi’s commentary clarifies that in order to be “known to gore,” an ox must have gored someone at least three times previously. The situation, then, would look like this: Joe has an ox. You have heard of this ox goring three people. The ox then gores a friend or family member of yours. Consider your own emotional response to this situation, as compared to a situation where an ox that has never before gored anyone, and happens to now gore a friend or family member of yours. In the latter case, I imagine you feel sadness, regret, and maybe some anger. However, in the former case – the case of Joe’s ox who was known to gore – I would feel furious. I would want revenge and vicious consequences for Joe, so he could feel the pain that I feel.

It is this sense of vindication that is conveyed by the root word shin-pey-tet. Wanting vindication is a natural response to what we perceive as avoidable tragedy. Most people are, eventually, able to cope with unavoidable tragedy – accidents, unforeseen illnesses, and the like. However, when we believe someone had the power to prevent or mitigate the pain and hurt we feel, it is not only harder to move on, but harder to manage the negative emotions we feel. Anger is an active, high-energy emotion, as compared to sadness – a relatively low energy feeling. Both are highly negative emotions, but anger often has a drive to “do something” associated with it, while sadness does not.

Vindication is further articulated in this week’s parsha through the inclusion of Hammurabi’s code – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth … a burning for a burning, a wound for a wound. Thus, an idea of revenge – or, acting out when wrongdoing is done – is certainly an idea supported by the Torah in some sense. However, a more mitigated and muted response to breaking of social contracts, norms, and mores may actually be what the Torah is advocating.

Rashi’s commentary on the punishments described in parshat Mishpatim argues that all of the harshest consequences were actually dependent on the Sanhedrin or other governing body to decide. Harsh punishments were options in the situations described, but in order for those punishments to be acted upon, a governing body not directly affected by the situation must have shafat – executed judgment. We are all angry when tragedy – especially tragedy perceived as avoidable – happens, and we all want vindication, to enact vengeance. This is why in ancient communities and in our modern system of government, individuals affected by an event were not then and are not now, permitted to hand out consequences for that event. The Torah here acknowledges the drive for revenge, but the implementation of these laws valued mitigation and restraint – something difficult to come by when we are filled with anger.

Yvonne Asher