Mishpatim (Jan 24, 2014)

Post date: Feb 14, 2014 10:14:49 PM


We will be reading Mishpatim. For those of you of the legal persuasion, Mishpatim reads like case law. The way it elaborates on the Decalog (which we read last week) gives a deep insight into the legal, social, and revolutionary thinking of our ancestors.

By example, where the 10 Commandments contain a simple command against murder, Mishpatim goes into great detail about the difference between murder and manslaughter, accidental death, premeditated murder, etc. If your ox were to gore someone, you yourself would be responsible, but the degree of your responsibility depends on whether the ox had been know to be dangerous, or whether it was a first time occurrence.

As time went on, this case law necessarily became more and more complex. I say necessarily because every law, by its nature, draws a distinct line between that which is within and that which is without the law, but we human beings and our actions do not fit into simplistic definitions. When considering responsibility and punishment, one can not apply a one-size-fits-all law. Details matter, as does the manner by which truth is ascertained. Every new "special situation" creates a new law.

In fact, every rule has this inherent characteristic. It's application depends on circumstances. This is true for criminal law, but it is also true when we talk about a vast range of rules. Thus, I would not want to apply minimum sentences based on "3 strikes", since such an application of consequences is blind to extenuating circumstances.

This applies also in education, where we are putting a huge emphasis these days on measuring progress via standardized tests. I know children who are brilliant but do not score especially well on standardized tests, and children who are not so brilliant but score superbly on standardized tests. A test, like a law, draws a hard division of that which is inside (pass) and that which is outside (fail), but it does not provide insight into the human. And while measuring progress is important, whose ruler are we using?

Laws provide us the framework to live together. They enable us to restrict our actions to socially normative behavior or risk the consequences. But Mishpatim teaches us that blind application of law on a people is dishonest because situations and details can dramatically change the interpretation of one's actions. It tells us clearly that before judging another, we must consider the times, learn the truth, and apply our best thinking.

Good singing, good food, and great conversation in a heimishe atmosphere. What more could you ask for? See you tomorrow.

Shabbat shalom,