This week’s portion leaves the narrative behind and focuses instead on Torah law. It deals extensively with case law between man and man, but also includes a number of laws between man and God. It is concerned with justice and righteous behavior. As the Israel Bible points out, the juxtaposition of the case law in our portion with the religious obligations of the Ten Commandments at the end of the last portion, teaches that religion requires not only faith, but ethical conduct, as well.
The portion begins with the laws of the Jewish slave. Although to our modern eye, slavery appears to be oppressive and an affront to human rights, it was a common practice until relatively recently. The Torah, in our portion and other places, outlines circumstances in which an Israelite might be sold into slavery to his fellow (see 22:2 for example). The period of slavery is limited to seven years, but if the slave is happy in his position, he is entitled to request that his indentured period be extended.
Another example of the exchange of humans for financial compensation is the sale of an unmarried daughter. The verses indicate that it is a sale for the purpose of marriage — if the buyer ultimately opts not to marry her, he must redeem her. If he takes another wife in addition to her, he cannot in any way diminish her marital rights.
Points to Ponder
If an Israelite slave opts to stay with his master, he is taken to the court and his ear is pierced with an awl through to a doorpost. What do you think this means?
Damages and Capital Crimes
In this extended passage, the Torah deals with a variety of cases involving damages and capital crimes. These include theft, property damage, loss of another’s belongings, injury, accidental death and even murder.
The laws in this section emphasize a person’s responsibilities to his fellow. For example, the owner of a dangerous animal (the text specifies an ox known to be aggressive) is held personally accountable if his animal kills someone — the text calls for his execution. A borrower is obliged to replace a borrowed item if it breaks in his care, and someone who is guarding a friend’s property must do the same.
The penalties for theft is detailed in this section. In specific cases, the thief must repay four or five times the value of a stolen animal, but generally the repayment rate is double. The Israel Bible cites Rabbi Moshe Lichtman, who explains the implementation of penalties such as these can only be imposed by a court authorized by the ordination passed down through the generations from the time of Moses. Although this chain of ordination was lost during the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE, Maimonides believed that when the Jews returned to their homeland, Rabbinic authority to revive the chain of ordination could be reinstated.
In addition to the obvious case of murder, several other capital crimes are listed in this section. These include striking or cursing a parent and kidnapping. The general rule laid out in the text is the famous verse, “an eye for an eye” (21:24), but the Sages explain that it is not meant to be understood literally. Rather, they determine that one must repay the value of an eye if one takes out his fellow’s eye, and so forth. The Hebrew “ayeen tachat ayeen” literally means an eye under an eye. The Hebrew letter which immediately follow the ones which spell eye are “kesef”, which is Hebrew for money.
Points to Ponder
According to the text, if a homeowner discovers a thief tunneling into his home and kills the invader, he is not liable. If ‘the sun rises’ on the thief, however, the homeowner is liable if he kills him. Why do you think the Torah makes the distinction?
Holiness, Righteousness and Justice
Following the laws of damages above, the Torah continues with a series of laws which promote holiness, righteousness and justice in the community. These include eliminating abominations such as idolatry and sexual immorality, treating the unfortunate with care and respect, and preserving the integrity of the judicial system.
Included in this section is an overview of the laws of the Sabbath and the Sabbatical year as they protect the poor and underprivileged.Just as we rest on the seventh day of the week to commemorate God resting on the seventh day of creation, so too we are commanded to let the land rest once every seven years. This law, in practice today, requires that we refrain from planting, plowing or harvesting for a full year. The produce which grows on its own during this time may be eaten, and is considered holy. The Israel Bible points out that both the Sabbath and Sabbatical year have a similar message: just as the Sabbath teaches us that the world and everything in it belong to God, so the Sabbatical year teaches that God is the source of our economic success. The Hebrew year 5775, which roughly coincides with 2015, is a Sabbatical year.
Points to Ponder
Exodus 23:4-5 commands one to return one’s enemy’s lost animal and unburden his suffering animal. Do you think this applies even to one’s enemy, or particularly to one’s enemy? What is the difference? What is this law trying to teach us?
When you arrive in the land…
Our passage begins with a mention of the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. God requires that during these three festivals, which coincide with the agricultural cycle of the year, His people bring specific sacrifices to His place of worship.
From there, God promises He will send an angel before the nation to protect them on their way to the Promised Land. If the people follow God’s commands, the angel will pave the way before them to settle in the land, and God will shower them with blessings. He will strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, bless their fields and their wombs. He enjoins the nation not to learn from the worship of the current inhabitants of the land to serve other gods.
God says the nation will increase and inherit the land. As the Israel Bible points out, we are seeing the fulfillment of this success in our time, as the once-desolate land blossoms under the Jewish return to the land and the country benefits from spiritual, economic and technological success.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think God says He will send an angel before the nation instead of saying He will take them into the land? Based on his description, do you think this angel is metaphysical or human?
A covenant at the mountain
Our portion closes with a description of how the law was received by the Children of Israel. God invites Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s two older sons and seventy elders to worship Him from a distance, with only Moses coming closer. Moses then relates all the laws he has received thus far to the people, who acknowledge their commitment to keeping them. Moses records the words and builds an altar with twelve pillars to bring sacrifices to God. He sprinkles half the blood of the sacrifices on the altar and half on the people, signing a covenant in blood to keep God’s laws.
God then tells Moses to climb the mountain and He will give him two tablets with the law carved on them. Moses tells the nation he will return after a while, and in the meantime they are to follow the leadership of Aaron and Hur. Moses climbs up the mountain and the glory of God descends, described as a consuming fire upon the mountain, which was surrounded by clouds. Moses remains on the mountain for forty days and nights.
The Israel Bible comments on the twelve pillars Moses built to accompany the altar. What was their purpose? As the text says, they were symbolic of the twelve tribes, and commentators explain they represent the future generations, as well. From this verse, the Sages teach that every soul descended from Jacob was present at the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Points to Ponder
The Torah describes a transcendental experience in which Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons and the elders see a manifestation of God. They respond by eating and drinking. Do you think this was the correct response? Why or why not? What can we learn from this encounter about interacting with God?