Last week I suggested that finding just 10 rules or commandments to guide human society is an impossible task. I wrote: "Life is complicated. You can't distill the essence of what any human being needs to know and to do down into a top ten list, or a top three list, or even a single golden rule. Therefore this commandment is inherently oxymoronic."
Well, this week I am regretting my dismissive attitude. So many statutes in Mishpatim, and even these aren't the entire lot of them. Last week I printed out a list of all 613 commandments for a teacher, and it was 28 pages long! Even weaning out the Temple-cult specific mitzvot you still have a lengthy list.
How is one to know all of these rules? How is one to avoid transgressing? It's no wonder that the rabbis built very tall and distant fences, so that we might avoid inadvertently failing to follow a commandment. (It's also no wonder that Paul stripped Judaism of most of the mitzvot so that he could have far better success selling the Jesus cult to the goyim.)
Oops. There. I've gone an transgressed. It says right in our parasha that we should not have the names of other gods on our lips.
(Sidebar: I find it interesting that, given all the prohibitions and warning about idolatry and the worship of other gods found in the Torah, that it is not a capital offense for which death is the punishment--at least, not in this parasha. There are other places in the Torah and Tanakh where one might make the leap from idol worship to "mot yumat" - the "surely will be put to death" punishment associated with divine action, but these tend to be communal rather than individual punishments. For the worshipper of other gods, the punishment was herem - proscription. Exclusion from the community. Of course, that could be considered a fate worse than death.)
(Another Sidebar: So, can I take the name of another god in vain? Well, if we're not to even have the names of other gods on our lips....)
Still, it seems odd. If I practice bestiality, I am put to death. For premeditated murder, I am put to death. For striking a parent, I am put to death. For kidnapping, I am put to death. For insulting my parents, I am put to death. If I am careless with my recidivist goring ox, I am put to death. If I mistreat widows or orphans, I will be put to death through G"d's anger.
Yet if I sacrifice to another god, my punishment is yakharam, to be made herem or proscribed. (The whole concept of herem is difficult to define. At the end of Leviticus, its context and meaning is quite different, referring to captured land or property that is forever hence dedicated to the service of G"d or the sanctuary. It is only in rabbinic times that herem becomes more like excommunication or shunning.)
So if herem is, in this case, not about exclusion from the community but rather about being made permanent and inseparable property, or permanently dedicated in service, then to what or whom is the one in herem obligated? A nice reading might be that for their transgression in worshipping other gods, they become permanently in the service of Ad"nai. That feels like the punishment fits the crime. A less satisfying but interesting reading might be that the one who worships other gods becomes herem to the other god! (The rabbis would never go for that interpretation. For them , t'shuva (true repentance) is always a possibility. Of course, if one is put to death for violating a mitzvah, t'shuva is surely an impossibility.
Now, all these questions and controversies aside, there are a snootful of pretty good ideas in Mishpatim. There are many underlying values and a sense of justice and fairness in many of the verses. (Of course, if you happen to be a sorceress....) And it is here in Mishpatim that the tendency to ask and answer the "well, but what if..." questions about situations that underpins so much of Talmud. It's a refreshingly realistic way of looking at things.
However, it's looking at so many things. When the text says mishpatim, it doesn't mean a mishpat or two. It means a whole bunch of 'em. Mishpatim with a capital IM. It can be overwhelming. At the same time, I feel that if I only dedicate myself to writing about or studying just one of them, it's just not enough.
And I'll leave you there to muse for yourself. I'm off to see if I can find go find an enemy whose donkey seems to have stumbled under the heavy burden it is being forced to carry and help him raise it up. Hmmmm....this could prove interesting in equivalent modern terms.
©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U'mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence
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