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Law, Morality and God

By: Rabbi Aharon E. Wexler

In last week’s parsha we are told of the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. This week, we begin to delve in to the content of His revelation. It is the content of the revelation that we call Torah. The word ‘Torah’ literally means ‘teaching’ and it is the goal of Torah to teach us about God, ourselves and about how the two relate to each other.
The Torah as revealed to us, takes the form of law, lore, narrative, history, poetry and moral lessons; but it is none of these. The Torah is not a history book, nor is it a biology text book; thus neither are superfluous. Torah is theology and theology alone. It uses different genre to teach man the covenant and his role in it.
Parshat Mishpatim uses the genre of ‘law’ and gives us one of our first introductions to Hebrew Law.
The first question that we must ask when encountering these laws is if the Torah is descriptive or proscriptive? Is the Torah trying to describe an ideal society (in which case it would be incumbent upon us to have slaves and sell off our daughters as maidservants) or is the Torah simply speaking in the language and terms of the ancient Israelite who stood at the foot of the mountain? In which case, God would have to describe a world that was familiar to His audience.
It would seem that God, introducing Himself to an early agrarian economy of former slaves is introducing a form of legislation that spoke to them. Along with the choice of Hebrew as the language of revelation, so too God speaks using words and images that the ancient Israelite would understand.  When the passuk says “If a man deliver to his neighbor an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; (Shemot 22:9), the Torah could have easily substituted the word car, blender or iPhone. The Israelites of course would have no idea of what God was saying and Rashi would have to add another of his “I don’t know” commentaries while he too scratched his head. For the Torah to be inherited by the succeeding generations, it would have to be treasured and understood by the previous ones. Otherwise, for what reason would they bequeath this worthless and unintelligible document?  God brilliantly chose the words He did for that generation and gave the Oral Law the fluidity it needed to take those laws in their ancient form and allow the rabbis to interpret them in new environment and circumstances. In this way the Torah, although speaking of asses, oxen, and sheep speaks just as much to us as it did to our fathers 3,300 years ago.
One of the most fascinating aspects about our parsha is that God used the same wording for His Torah as that of another famous law giver, Hammurabi. Hammurabi called his code Dinat Meisharim, Laws of the Just. (And if you were able to translate that yourself, it is because Akkadian is a close cousin to Hebrew.) This should not be too surprising as Abraham the first Hebrew, emerged at the same time and geographical location as Hammurabi.
The Code of Hammurabi is a strict secular code that testifies not only to the high degree of civilization but also to the unchaste institutions that are taken for granted and regulated. In Hammurabi’s Code, moral injunctions are absent and sons are indeed punished for the sins of the Fathers! Hammurabi’s code was the most the most advanced of its time. And before you dismiss it as ancient and irrelevant, keep in mind that the US Supreme Court honors Hammurabi till this day with a frieze as one of the great lawgivers to mankind.
His law was a harsh reciprocal law. Literally an‘eye for an eye’. The law was practical, reasonable, and it worked.  So brilliant and familiar to the ancient world is the law, that Torah itself sometimes lifts the very same succinct words of Hammurabi for its . According to Hammurabi if you build a house for a client and it caves in killing someone’s son, the punishment was that your son would be killed. i.e. sons would be punished for the sins of the father. Now perhaps we can appreciate why the Bible goes out of its way of exclaiming that in its law, that would no longer be the case.
The reality is that if your goal is to set up a society “that works” you probably don’t need God. But if you want to set up moral society you need to have God as the bottom line reason.
There are at least four differences between Torah law and Hammurabi.
a. Origin: In other ancient law systems the law giver was the king and thus his law was man-made. Our law comes from God alone.
b. Class Distinction: Both the Egyptian law from which the Israelites immediately emerged from as well as the Code of Hammurabi, made clear distinctions between different strata in society. In God’s law all are equal! Even slaves rights are carefully taken care of. Not only is one forbidden to strike his slave, but the slave goes free if he or she is ever abused. So many laws were legislated about that  abhorrent institution that the Rabbis have commented, that one who has acquired a slave for himself has really acquired a master! Perhaps the most revelatory law in our parsha is the command to have “Mishpat Echad” one law. One law and equal treatment under it for the rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, citizen and stranger. There is simply no parallel for equal treatment under the law in the ancient near-east.
c. Man & God: Our law makes no distinction between civil and religious offences. They all offend God. Both parties in the case of adultery were drowned unless the husband pardoned his wife in which case she would be spared. In Hebrew law, it is God whom the adulterous woman has offended, not her husband and therefore he is no position to pardon her. Unlike many believe, a woman was not the property of her husband to be ‘lent out’.
d. Moral Foundation: The laws of the other ancient societies were meant to keep people in their places and establish a civilized society; the Torah takes for granted that we are civilized; its goal is to make us ethical. A discussion about the differences between a civilized society and an ethical one, can be a great topic for the Shabbos table…