Parashat Mishpatim – Exodus 21:1-24:18

By Cantor David E. Reinwald

“Excuse me,” I addressed the busy waitress, “I didn’t get my check.”  Everyone else did. We had a big party at the restaurant, and they had nicely divided all of our checks. The waitress, who was clearly busy and either new to her job, or overburdened by an understaffed restaurant, had earlier forgotten to take my order, after taking orders from the whole table. She had walked away, and I had to wait for her to return. Dinner was good, and yet now I was left with no check, mediocre service, and we had somewhere to be. The waitress again did not return to the table after finishing with the others’ checks.

We were at the 2013 URJ Biennial in San Diego, and the schedule was jam-packed. We wanted to get back to the convention center to get good seats for the evening’s presentations, which unlike most Jewish events, actually started exactly on time!  So, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do. A moral dilemma that became, almost appropriately timed at this major Jewish event, while in my mind, an amazing lesson to be taught in a future class played out…

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, picks up some of the themes from last week’s portion. It was then that we reenacted standing at Sinai as we read the Ten Commandments. “Mishpatim” translates as ‘laws.’  But, with the word ‘Torah’ meaning law, ‘mitzvot’ meaning commandments, and the Ten Commandments generally called ‘ha’aseret hadibrot’ – the ten sayings, statements, or declarations, to offer a few possibilities, what are the differences in all of these terms? Some have suggested that the Ten Commandments may be seen as large, umbrella categories of commandments. I believe that no matter how we understand them, they represent some of the most elemental understandings for what is allowed and outlawed for us not just as Jews, but as human beings. And, thus, it comes as no surprise that the Ten Commandments have been given heavy importance by many faiths.

So, there are more rules in Mishpatim?  Yes!  And–lots of them!  Check out this commentary on the portion, which includes a long list of many of the rules mentioned. While you may have just read a few ‘rules’ that made you scratch your head (Anyone out there tolerating a sorceress? … Shame on you!) –Mishpatim seems to expand greatly upon what we encounter with “the ten.” In many of the rules, we are given more guidelines for how to handle relationships (and even problems) between various people and, in turn, there seems to be much greater detail in these rules that protect us as individuals. Likewise, today’s governments have a responsibility to work to help protect the individuals that make up their nation–any democratic nation, including our very own, holds to its basic principles found in its Constitution (with specific attention for us as Americans to our Bill of Rights). It is upon these principles that it then creates its laws.

A week ago, I told the story of my situation in San Diego to our confirmation class, and then we went on to explore the eighth commandment – Do Not Steal, as this was the situation and dilemma that had been at hand at the restaurant. I questioned the class if this commandment was purely a straightforward statement. I think our natural reaction to hearing this commandment is to think that we are moral people and upstanding citizens who would never do this. And, then we go on our way not really thinking about it anymore. But, if we understand it as a category, we can understand that there underlies the ability for us to unintentionally cross one of its paths, and it is not a one-dimensional statement. The Talmud defines stealing as “any unjustified way of depriving one’s fellow of what is rightfully theirs.” We have to continue to interpret this in a modern perspective. This is especially true for the majority of us who use technology every day in ways that share property which is quite intangible. How many of us have shared an mp3 with others who have not purchased it, copied a CD for a friend, or treaded lightly yet unknowingly in other areas of trading intellectual property without knowing that we may be breaking copyright laws? Maybe there is a moment for us of a feeling of accomplishment, of having snagged a small thing for free–like sneaking into that second movie at the movie theater. And yet, if we do think of it for a moment, but then brush it off to say, eh, it isn’t hurting anyone–aren’t we still in violation of this commandment?

The commandments teach us to be true to God while being true to ourselves and our own moral compass. In the confirmation class, we discussed whether or not it was worse to steal in public or in private. An interesting discussion pursued. As is often the case, a twist of logic arises from Jewish tradition stating that stealing in private is worse (and there were many students in the class who said stealing in public was the worst offense, as it showed the person had no regard for authority or what anyone thought of them). Jewish tradition teaches that one who steals in public shows disregard for both public opinion and judgment in the eyes of God. The public offender acknowledges this as they commit their crime. Yet, one who steals in private is a hypocrite. They hide their wrongdoing for concern of what others will think, and yet, does one believe that God really does not see their actions and transgressions? This is the worst of two evils.

However, punishment was dealt differently in Biblical times, and this portion denotes amongst its many rules protections for bonded slaves, who were paying back their debts through their labor, perhaps even for wrongdoing. There was an understanding that the individual could make amends and then move on, without fear of being wrongly treated or kept beyond fulfillment of their arrears. With the one exception of kidnapping (stealing a person–with which some also say the ‘do not steal’ commandment refers), an individual could always make reparations.

And, so with no bill in hand at the restaurant, and my moral compass at full attention at this most Jewish of events, I decided I would not delay us in getting back to the convention center. I calculated what my dinner cost plus tip and left cash on the table, happily knowing I had done what was right in my heart and in the eyes of God.

Cantor Reinwald greatly appreciates your readership.  This week, the first three people to email him what you found most intriguing about this portion at will receive a gift of a signed copy of his album Here I Stand

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