Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
If last week’s portion highlighted the big picture moment of the Ten Commandments, Mishpatim gets into the specifics of how to bring the values of Torah to life. Mishpatim, which means laws or statutes, contains no fewer than 53 separate commandments – more per square centimeter than any other Torah portion!
Here is just one short excerpt:
“You shall not bear a false rumor. You shall not put your hand with the guilty to be a harmful witness. You shall not follow the many for evil, and you shall not bear witness in a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many. Nor a poor man shall you favor in his dispute. Should you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, you must surely return it to him.” [Ex. 23:1-4]
In Mishpatim we find the detail we need to understand how to guarantee the central Toraitic concepts of judicial impartiality and equality before the law. Let’s break the passage down into its component parts.
“You shall not bear a false rumor.” According to Jewish tradition, rumor mongering is considered one of the worst behaviors in which we can engage. It is not only destructive, but toxic. The rabbis teach that even if we only believe half of what we hear, we still believe half of what we hear – and more often than not – we pass judgement on that information alone. Don’t believe it? Consider the effect disinformation and alternative “facts” have on our civilization and culture today.
“You shall not put your hand with the guilty to be a harmful witness.” In plain English, this means do not conspire with the guilty to pervert justice. This applies to unjust behavior both in and out of the courtroom.
“You shall not follow the many for evil.” Here we get the injunction to do what is right, even when it means swimming against the current. In more direct terms, we must stand for justice even if the rest of the world seems to demand the opposite.
“and you shall not bear witness in a dispute to go askew, to skew it in support of the many.” Here Torah warns us about the danger of perverting justice when we are not active co-conspirators. If we feel pressure to support the majority view, even to the point that we are afraid of opposing the majority view, we are still prohibited from giving false testimony.
“Nor a poor man shall you favor in his dispute.” This is reminiscent of a similar commandment from Leviticus: “You shall do no wrong in justice. You shall not favor the poor and you shall not defer to the rich.” [Lev. 19:15] Nobody gets special treatment before the law, regardless of economic or societal standing. Even the king of Israel is subject to the laws of Torah.
“Should you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, you must surely return it to him.” We may not have enemies with missing livestock, but we still might be tempted to treat our detractors unjustly. This law makes it clear that such behavior is antithetical to building a just society. We may not like everyone, but we must never forget that justice and revenge are two very different things. We cannot change the laws to suit our own personal and/or petty agendas.
Torah was right at Sinai, and it is right now. We are here because our forbears kept Torah alive in the world. Now it is up to us.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras