Our previous Parshiot have dealt with the incredible narrative of the history, formation, enslavement and freedom of our people.
Our current Parsha takes a break from this retelling to focus on Law – Altogether, the Parshah of Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot; 23 positive commandments and 30 prohibitions.
Religion contains various elements; profound ideas, narratives, descriptions of visions and prophecy; but religion is also used to convey the Law; the will of Hashem in this world.
The people of Israel have often existed under tyranny, under rulers who believed that their laws did not apply to themselves; they used many justifications to do so; electoral government, military power, divine right and racial superiority. Our understanding of Law is fundamentally different; it is not just the agreed upon practices of the powerful against the populace, nor the golden rule (in which those with money make the rules), we see Law as intrinsically given from God.
When we look into the universe, we see an incredible order and symmetry to things; there are laws underpinning gravity, quantum, biology, music, ecology.
It is an intellectually shocking and delightful experience to see the universe set with its laws, constants – something we should not expect from a world constructed from chaos alone – in the earlier sources such as the Rambam, the experience of natural law is used as a proof to the truth of Hashem’s existence and the belief that there is such a unity and symmetry is an accepted phenomenon and the basis for much scientific enquiry:
So much so that the theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and popular scientific writer Steven Hawkings wrote: “the ultimate goal of science is to develop a “unifying theory” that can be applied in any context.” – so far, such a theory remains hotly debated and undiscovered – this seems to echo loudly in correlation with our ancient spiritual declaration of Oneness.
There is one area that we do not see symmetry, equality and logic – in arena of Human interaction our history is anything but peaceful, instead the pages of our journey from the stone age to today is written in blood and terrible suffering that we have professionally inflicted upon each other for a variety of reasons and ideologies.
The commandment of Law is the attempt to return Humanity to the balance of the Created Universe, Law is not a static entity but one that adapts to times and circumstance ; unlike our Written Torah, our Oral Tradition defines axioms and principles that allow us to apply the law to a variety of possible cases.
That is perhaps why our Parsha begins with the laws of slavery; we having been slaves in Egypt immediately legislate that slavery no longer be an eternal sentence but a decree imposed by court with strict limitations of time and fairer treatment, the experience of Egypt becoming an inspiration for the future as the honourable Rabbi Sacks wrote, that this Parsha performs the function:
“To translate historical experience into detailed legislation, so that the Israelites would live what they had learned on a daily basis, weaving it into the very texture of their social life. In the parsha of Mishpatim, vision becomes detail, and narrative becomes law.”
Although our desire is the freedom of humankind from slavery entirely, this has never been achieved, despite our condemnation and legal approach to the matter, slavery is far from abolished, according to a recent UN report (Global Estimates of Modern Slavery Forced Labour and Forced Marriage – published in 2022) “…some 50 million people were living in modern slavery: 28 million in forced labour and 22 million in forced marriages.”:
“Modern slavery is the very antithesis of social justice and sustainable development. The 2021 Global Estimates indicate there are 50 million people in situations of modern slavery on any given day, either forced to work against their will or in a marriage that they were forced into. This number translates to nearly one of every 150 people in the world. The estimates also indicate that situations of modern slavery are by no means transient – entrapment in forced labor can last years, while in most cases forced marriage is a life sentence. And sadly, the situation is not improving.”
It is a sobering thought that whilst we in the developed world may like to think of the subject of slavery as something belonging to the iron age, no longer relevant or meaningful to our paradigm it is nonetheless a reality for many people in the world less fortunate and affluent as we, unless we regularly think upon slavery and its ramifications we are bound to a world where it is an inherent reality.
Our constant daily prayer is that humanity will achieve what it has never truly known and so desperately yearns for – peace, the end of oppression and ultimately, freedom for mankind.
Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt 2023 ©