Parashat Mishpatim/Sh’qalim (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
The turn from narrative – the common genre of the Torah from its start until the Exodus – to law, the common genre for most of the rest of the Pentateuch – is in full swing in the first part of our Torah portion. We are overwhelmed with laws, as the title of our Torah portion indicates – “Mishpatim – just laws.” (For some discussion on the interrelationship between law and narrative see Sparks 2016.)
The statements of the laws are mostly in the casuistic form – “if something is the case, then x is the law.” This form, indeed, preserves a weak form of narrative. But, generally, the text is characterized by legalistic, dry language.
It is therefore shocking to read – or, more correctly to hear – a sharp change in this style in the middle of our portion. We are not prepared for the verses that read: “Do not oppress any widow or orphan. For if you really oppress him, so that he screams out to Me, I will surely hear his scream. And I will become enraged and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives will become widows and your sons, orphans!” (Ex. 22:21-23)
This statement breaks out of the legal style and out of the legal system altogether. The simple prohibition not to oppress the widow or orphan is not let alone to do its legal work. Rather, God seems to brood over the possibility that this prohibition will be inadequate to protect these vulnerable types. The law will not be sufficient. God’s imagination is overtaken by the terror of the orphan’s scream and God lets loose a scream in empathy. For a moment God’s hope in human enforcement of the law is abandoned and God comes to avenge the weak and the oppressed.
After this outburst the cold, legal tone resumes. We are informed that we must not take away from the poor – to cover their debts to us – their most basic items. And if we do take them, we must return them. But then God breaks out of the legal mode again and begins arguing and almost pleading with us: “For this is his only covering; it is the covering for his skin; with what [else] can he sleep? And if it happens that he screams out to Me, I will hear, for I am compassionate!” (Ex. 22:26)
The Torah has previously moved from narrative to law. The law is meant to be the systematic expression of our covenantal relationship with God. But that relationship is founded on an emotional bond. The point of our relationship becomes sharply evident when God speaks of the weak and the unfortunate. In these instances God’s Voice is a scream and a plea; it is not the voice of a Judge or Legislator. These are small irruptions of God’s pure concern, a glimpse into God’s Own Heart, in which we can feel God’s anxiety and anguish that law, on its own, is not strong enough to make us good.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein
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