Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim February 9, 2018

Torah reading:  Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

Haftorah reading: 2 Kings 11:17 – 12:17

Sinai

In this week’s Torah reading, we find a series of specific commandments given by God to Moses.  Most are elaborations on the basic principles of the Ten Commandments.

We’ll look at just a few.

21:15  He who strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death.  Can you imagine if this law was in strict effect today?  But does it just mean literally ‘strike’ them; that is, hit them, beat them physically?  Well it certainly includes that but there is more than one way to ‘strike’ a parent. Defiance, rebellion, disrespect – all are means of ‘striking’ one’s parents.  And there’s more.

21:17 He who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death. Abusive words towards one’s mother or father is just as sinful, according to this commandment.  Showing dishonor and even cruelty to older parents is reprehensible.  Ignoring your parents because you are so busy with your own life is displeasing to the Lord.  And perhaps the worst: speaking evil of your parents to others.

The positive commandment is ‘Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with you and you may live long upon the earth.’ (Exodus 20:12)

21: 22-25  If men fight each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the women’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judge decides. But if there is injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty, life for life; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. 

This passage has bewildered people at times because they don’t understand what it is saying.  There is no way that God would demand the barbaric act of gouging out someone’s eye or cutting off someone’s hand.  The language here is Hebraic idiom and what it means is this: the offender must pay the injured in proportion to the level of injury.  To put it in modern terms, if your teenage son got in a fight and knocked out the front teeth of another teenager, under this commandment, you as the parent would be responsible to pay for the dental work needed by the injured person.

21:32 If an ox gores a male or female servant, the owner shall give his or her master thirty pieces of silver and the ox shall be stoned.

The value on the life of a servant in those days was thirty pieces of silver so if you owned an ox and it killed one of your neighbor’s farmhands, you would be responsible to pay damages – 30 pieces of silver.

Chapter 22:22 You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.  If you afflict them at all and if they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My anger will be kindled and I will kill you with a sword and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. 

Widows and orphans have a special place in God’s heart.  He is protective of them and commands us to be the same.

22:28 You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people.  This commandment is particularly timely at present, especially for my fellow Americans.  With the daily news this week being dominated by exposure of corruption and fraud at the highest levels of government,  many are angry at what’s been done.

Anger towards sin is one thing; but ‘cursing’ the sinner is something else entirely.  The adage is most appropriate here: Hate the sin; have regard for the sinner. Regardless of how upset we may get at the moral failures of leaders, we must guard our tongues lest we violate God’s rule: do not curse a ruler of your people.  The Scripture commands us to pray for those in authority over us and it does not carry with it an addendum that says, pray for them as long as they’re good in your eyes.  No, pray for them – period!

In Chapter 24, after hearing these and other instructions Moses gave them from the Lord, the people cry out, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.” (vs. 3b) In fact they repeated the same commitment again in verse 7.

In Tune with Torah this week = if we are honest, there are times we come across difficult passages when we read the Torah or listen to a teaching.  Perhaps it touches a nerve or puts a demand on us to change or to grow spiritually and we chafe against it.  It is precisely at those times that we need to echo the cry of the children of Israel: “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do.”  

Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim Feb. 24, 201

Torah reading: Exodus 21-24

Haftorah reading: Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26

This week’s haftorah reading is directly related to the first verse of the Torah reading in Exodus 21, in which God commands that anyone who has a Hebrew slave must grant him freedom after six years and send him away  with provision that will enable him to begin a new life.

The words in Hebrew translated as ‘Hebrew slave’ are eved ivri, which literally means a Hebrew worker or employee, not a ‘slave’ in the context of that word in modern thinking.  In ancient times, someone who had a debt they could not re-pay would voluntarily ‘work off their debt’ by serving in the household of the one to whom they owed the money.  In the Torah, God made clear that no one was to be such an eved ivri for more than six years and in fact, when the master released the worker, he was to provide him with whatever was needed for the newly freed servant to establish a new life.  The fundamental concept is that we are always to treat others with dignity, even and especially if they have fallen on hard times.

Fast forward to today’s haftorah:

“The word that came unto Jeremiah from the LORD, after that the king Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people that were at Jerusalem, to proclaim liberty unto them; that every man should let his man-servant, and every man his maid-servant, that is a Hebrew or a Hebrewess, go free; that none should make bondmen of them, of a Jew his brother. And all the princes and all the people obeyed, that had entered into the covenant, that everyone should let his man-servant, and everyone his maid-servant, go free, that none should make bondmen of them any more; they obeyed, and let them go. But those owners changed their minds and forced their former servants back into slavery. Jeremiah 34:8-9

 

Jeremiah addresses a situation in the Jerusalem of his day in which the population conducted a hypocritical ceremony of emancipation of their household servants only to re-‘enslave’ them shortly afterward.  God was outraged at such behavior and considered it treacherous and shameless, particularly because those who did so were themselves descendants of slaves that God Himself undertook to deliver from Egypt in a miraculous way.  He commanded in the Torah that His people were to be ‘holy as He is holy’ and to treat one’s fellowman as He treated them.

Therefore, the punishment inflicted upon them was justly deserved.

What made the peoples’ sin even worse was that they broke a covenant. To break a covenant was a grievous sin – and still is.  Therefore, the people suffered the consequence.

This reading reminds us that every decision has consequences not only for ourselves but for those around us.  And the decisions we make regarding how we treat each other are particularly important to God.

Has God been merciful to you when you needed mercy? Yes. Then in turn you are to be merciful towards those in need, towards those who have offended you, towards those who disagree with you.

Has God been good to you? Yes.  Then in turn you are to show goodness and kindness towards others.  It should be the natural result of your own awareness of God’s kindness towards you?

Has God been patient with you? We can all say a resounding ‘Yes’! Then it behooves us to learn patience in dealing with those around us, as the proper expression of gratitude to the LORD for His patience with us.

This is the lesson the Israelites had not learned and therefore, they paid the consequence.

The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I myself made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, ‘At the end of seven years each of you must set free the fellow Hebrew who has been sold to you and has served you six years; you must set him free from your service’. But your fathers did not listen to Me or incline their ears to Me.  You recently repented and did was what right in My eyes by proclaiming liberty, each to his neighbor, and you made a covenant before Me in the house that is called by My name.  But then you turned around and profaned My name when each of you took back his male and female servants, whom you had set free according to their desire and you brought them back into subjection.  Therefore, thus says the LORD: You have not obeyed Me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor.  Behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence and to famine, declares the LORD.  I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.  Jeremiah 34:12 -16

God did not take lightly the fact that the people promised ‘in the house that is called by My name’ to obey the Word of the LORD and then almost immediately, took it back.  It was a mockery and an insult to His holiness and God took it personally.

He still does.

When we mistreat others in violation of His commandment that we are to love one another, it is grievous to the heart of our heavenly Father.  When we make a promise to Him and then ignore or dismiss it, it is grievous to the heart of our heavenly Father.

Application:

At least two questions arise out of this passage.  1) Am I treating others with the same kindness with which God treats me?  2) Am I a person of my word? When I make a promise, do I keep it?

The answers to those questions are supremely important to our God.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Shoftim August 20, 2015

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

In this week’s Torah lesson we read a fascinating instruction to the king.

“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deut. 17:18). The passage furthur instructs the king that he must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break God’s commandments. But there is another reason also: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” or as another translation puts it: “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers”.

In short: The king was required to have humility. The most powerful in the land should not feel himself to be the most powerful in the land.

To be sure the king is given other commandments and Solomon’s failures can be directly traced to the deterioration of the humility which he so beautifully exhibited at the beginning of his reign.

When any leader, religious or political, begins to feel that because he is ‘above’ the people he is also ‘above’ the law, that nation or group will soon have a tyrant or dictator at the helm. The Bible knows nothing of leadership without humility. Ultimately, the arrogance of power will produce its own downfall. It is inevitable and history proves it to be so.

The Torah’s insistence on humility is much more than an urging to “be nice”. Humility is essential to leadership. Maimonides, the great Jewish sage, commented as follows:
Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to respect him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ (Ps. 109:22). Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Deut. 17:20).

He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, as it says, “Listen my brothers and my people….” (1 Chronicles 28:2), and similarly, “If today you will be a servant to these people…” (1 Kings 12:7).

He should always conduct himself with great humility. There was none greater than Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: “What are we? Your complaints are not against us” (Ex. 16:8). He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant. (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6)

The Torah model of God-fearing leadership is Moses who is described as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

Moses was hardly meek, timid or bashful. Rather Moses refused to ‘lord it over’ the people. He honored those under his charge, considered them important and pleaded with God on their behalf. Humility doesn’t mean demeaning yourself; it means properly honoring others. We read in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Who is honored? One who honors others.” Pirkei Avot 4:1

God’s love and care extends to all, regardless of rank or position. We, and especially a leader, must do likewise.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said: “The greatest source of sin is to forget we are children of the king.” We are all members of a royal family and must act as if we are. And the mark of true royalty is humility.

In Tune with Torah this week = examining our own attitude toward others whether we are leaders or not. Do we readily honor and respect other people? Even when their opinions differ from ours? The humble are more concerned with giving honor to others than receiving it for themselves. True greatness is manifest by humility.

Shabbat Shalom