Ah, Mishpatim. The Torah portion we love to hate, because it’s got the verse about an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, etc.
Last week in synagogues around the world, Jews chanted the Ten Commandments, the top ten list of Jewish belief and ethics. This week in Mishpatim (“rules”) we sink into a strange miscellany of laws. Fifty three of them. Laws about how to treat slaves, not hanging out with sorceresses, what happens when you dig a hole and an ox falls in, and a couple about what we can and cannot eat.
The punishments for most of the prohibitions is to make restitution. Sometimes the exact monetary amount is given. So it’s easy to understand why the rabbis of the Talmud decided that the “eye for an eye” law really means the monetary value of losing an eye. On a practical level, it is a much better outcome for the person who was wronged; what good is it for him, if someone else is injured too? Better to receive compensation.
Perhaps even more significant, most of these rules are specifically meant for people who have power over others. It’s a long section (Exodus chapters 21 through 24) so as a time-saver, I hereby offer my personal overview of the commandments therein:
Don’t be a jerk.
Don’t be cruel.
Don’t take advantage of people.
Don’t hurt people.
Apologize if you do hurt them.
Make restitution when you screw up.
The underlying message is this: We interact with other people on a daily basis, and we need rules. The Torah wants us to be thoughtful with each other, because how we behave matters. Whether we are in a traffic jam, at the grocery store, a doctor’s office, or a restaurant, our behavior affects other people. We each send ripples through the world that we may never see, and never know the results.
As Crosby, Stills & Nash sang in Teach Your Children, “You who are on the road must have a code that you can live by.”
We are all on that road, trying to find our way in the world. We have been given an ethical code, and we are responsible to live by it to the best of our ability, and pass along its timeless message.
And this is the simple lesson of this complex Torah portion. It’s not just the big dramatic moments that count. We experience the Divine in the minutia of our everyday lives. And we are able to be a reflection of the Divine whenever we act with kindness and concern for others.
To my fellow Floridians: May we be blessed to remember this the next time we’re driving in the winter traffic caused by the massive influx of Snowbirds (aka northerners who are fleeing the cold) and we don’t want to let the obnoxious driver with Nevada plates change lanes.