Dvar Torah from Rabbi Saul I. Grife
"Enacting the Law Justly - Not as Easy as it Seems!"
Parshat HaShavuah, the Torah reading this week is Mishpatim, from Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus 21:1 - 24:18. "Mishpatim" means "laws", referring to the 603 mitzvot or commandments that comprise the Torah beside the Aseret HaDibrot, the famous 10 that were revealed last week in Parshat Yitro to Moshe on Mt. Sinai. The parsha begins...
Vi'ayleh HaMishpatim asher taseem lifnayhem... And these are the laws that you shall set before them.
Several key lessons are learned from this opening short pasuk, or verse. One, the use of the prefix "Vav" in the first word means "and". The question is asked, "How can the parsha begin with the conjunctive "and" when nothing precedes it? The answer teaches us that the "and" connects all the laws that are to follow with the 10 Commandments and an additional 3 that were enumerated last week. Also, the "and" answers the question of skeptics who doubt that the other 603 enjoy an equal status with the first 10. Traditionally, the use of "and" points out that all 613 commandments in the Torah are to be understood as occupying a primary status of importance, that is, the observance of the 603 is as critical and essential to Jewish living as the famous 10. Jews can be divided into 2 camps: those who follow every mitzvah unconditionally whether they understand them or like them or not... and much of the liberal Jewish world who identifies themselves by picking and choosing the mitzvot they will follow or not with no pretense or apology. I am thrilled that both these options are available to the Jewish people, because each resonates so strongly with millions of Jews and allows us all to find a home under the Jewish rubric. If one of these options disappeared, probably so too would lots of practicing and identifying Jews. One of the greatest strengths of the Jewish traditions is that it has allowed so many different kinds of Jews to connect, be included and identify proudly with their heritage.
Kayn Yirbu... may this always be!!
Exodus 21:12 states...
HaMakeh Ish Va'Met, Mot Yumat... One who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death.
What does this mean? How is it interpreted? What are the practical issues involved?
At first glance, this decree offers a pronouncement that creates justice. Just a few verses later the Torah states...
Ayin tachat ayin, shayn tachat shayn... An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. (Exodus 21:24...)
What is fair is fair. What is equal is equal. What you take you lose. On one hand, it certainly seems just that if one takes a life one forfeits one's life in return. After all, Deuteronomy 16:20 teaches...
Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof... Justice and righteousness you shall pursue!
Pursuing and attaining justice lies at the heart of Judaism. But... both Jewish and American law understand that exacting the death penalty to one who has killed another is not a simple matter.
Both legal systems suggest different punishments for Murder 1, Murder 2, manslaughter and self-defense. One guilty of pre-meditated murder will earn a different punishment than one who killed someone in self-defense. It can be argued that as the Torah says, in both cases, a life has been lost so the punishment should be the same. But the circumstances associated with the act are taken into consideration and the punishments (or lack thereof) are carefully measured. One of the lessons we learn here is that the written word of the Torah demands further interpretation if true justice is to be obtained. Rabbinic Judaism and American law never considered that one who is found guilty of pre-meditated murder should suffer the same consequences as one who killed an attacker in self-defense. This was never understood to be just. Yet, the Torah simply states, "kill someone, you shall be put to death". The birth and development of the Oral Law that accompanies the Written Law was deemed to be a great advancement in not only helping us to understand the true nature of the words of Torah but also how to promote greater justice amongst ourselves in this world!
This Shabbat morning we gather for our monthly Torah study at 9:00 for one-half hour before shul begins at 9:30. We will take a look at both last week's parsha of Yitro as well as this week's parsha of Mishpatim to talk about Revelation, Law and Leadership. I look forward to sharing with you some thoughts form the esteemed Rabbi Jonathan Sachs as a part of our conversation. I look forward to seeing you Shabbat morning!
Last week's Shabbaton in the woods was a great success for the sold-out crew that came to celebrate Shabbat, create a stronger all-embracing community and have a lot of fun! Yasher Koach to all that planned it, contributed to it and attended it!
Shabbat Shalom to all!