Linking Narrative to Law

Mishpatim By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 5, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

With this week’s parasha, our landscape changes abruptly. We take leave of the hospitable realm of narrative history and enter the austere world of legal rules and cultic regulations, where we shall stay put, with but one brief excursion, till we reach chapter 11 of the book of Numbers. There can be no doubt that law is central to the Torah’s conception of religion. Boundaries create order and give shape to existence. Community springs from the limits placed on individual freedom.

That legal emphasis raises again the question as to the role of the Torah’s narrative material. Is there in fact an integral connection between law and history? If the core and goal of the Torah is to cultivate a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6),” then why can’t we dispense with the narrative prologue altogether and get right down to what really matters? The Torah should have begun with the laws of Passover or the Ten Commandments, as a number of ancient rabbinic legalists suggested. You may recall that I first raised the issue when we read Hayyei Sarah back in November and argued then that the book of Genesis laid claim to the land of Palestine as the eventual home for that holy kingdom.

The laws assembled in Mishpatim illuminate a different linkage. They do not appear to be organized in any logical pattern. Civil, criminal, ethical, and cultic injunctions are listed indiscriminately, yielding a chaotic legislative quilt. Nor do the traditional commentaries waste much time trying to figure our the reasons for the sequence. And yet I find it striking that our parasha opens with a set of regulations governing the institution of slavery: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment…. When a [Hebrew] man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not be freed as male slaves are. If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself [i.e. for marriage], he must let her be redeemed…(Ex. 21:2,7).” Ten of the first eleven verses of the parasha deal with the protection of Hebrew slaves in a bold new spirit that practically eliminates a status that turns humans into chattel. The Torah seeks to prevent us from degrading members of the community who have fallen on hard times.

To lift the Torah’s legal corpus out of its narrative framework is to sunder the connection between law and life. The sense of humanity which inspires the Torah’s reform of slavery is driven by the experience in Egypt. Oppression deepens Israel’s conception of justice. A kingdom of priests cannot be built on the loose soil of ethical speculation, but only on the bedrock of protracted suffering. The opening section of this first legal code of the Torah points back to the ordeal which formed Israel’s moral sensibility. Compassion flows from knowing pain.

And the traces of that transforming knowledge abound in the Torah’s legal sections. The commandment to “remember the sabbath day,” which we read last week, extends the blessing to desist from all work to “your male and female slave [both Hebrew and non-Hebrew], your cattle and the stranger who is within your settlements (Ex. 20:10),” that is, to the most vulnerable members of society. By the time we shall get to the repetition of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy the entire observance of Shabbat will be justified by reference to the experience of Egyptian slavery and God’s redeeming hand, and not, as in Exodus, by reference to creation (Deut. 5:15).Somewhat later in our parasha, the Torah returns to a discussion of the practice of slavery to demand that even the non-Hebrew slave, the outsider, be treated with a semblance of decency. Though slaves are indeed the property of their owners, the law intervenes to protect them against murder and injury. In the former instance the owner faces punishment whereas in the latter the slave goes free (Ex. 21:20, 26-27). According to Bible scholar Nahum Sarna these restrictions on the freedom of action of slave owners have no parallel in the legal literature of the ancient Near East, and again I feel the weight of Israel’s bondage behind these laws. Tolerated only in humanized form, slavery in the Torah is light years away from the brutal view enunciated by the Roman writer Varro in the first century B.C.E. that “the slave is merely a tool that talks.”

Similarly, the Egyptian experience prompts concern for the stranger, the non-ethnic resident. Not once, but twice does our parasha warn against abusing the vulnerable non-Israelite in our midst, and each time the admonition is anchored in the past. “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20).” More explicitly, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the dealings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 23:9).” History clearly impacts here on the spirit and contours of halakha.

In short, for the Torah narrative and nomos (law) are inextricably linked. Even as the bitter taste of slavery honed Israel’s moral sense, the exhilaration of the exodus, of God’s presence in history, dictated its acceptance of the Torah. Revelation could not precede redemption. A rabbinic tale recounts how God peddled the Ten Commandments to many nations before Israel finally accepted them. While according to this midrash, each nation found some part of the Decalogue offensive to its lifestyle, the real reason, I believe, that they all rejected the offer was that they had no firsthand experience of God. For them the Torah was but disembodied law, unrelated to the felt experience of God in their national history. In contrast, Israel’s acceptance of the Torah welled up only after exposure to God’s saving power. Redemption left them little choice but to heed God’s call. The Decalogue begins with an irrefutable reminder that Israel owes its very existence to God’s mercy. “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Ex. 20:2).”

The past is prologue to the future. Israel’s covenant with God is predicated on it. So is the character of Torah, an inspired blueprint to help an errant humanity become humane.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Mishpatim are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.