Parashat Mishpatim is a perfect storm. Opening the book of Exodus during volatile political times is an exercise in confirmation bias in the best of cases, but Mishpatim speaks to our current reality – in an election year, no less – in uncanny ways. If the Exodus represented the paradigm shift, and the giving of the Torah represented the envisioning of a new society, then the legislative thrust of Mishpatim is the aftermath and the reality check. One of the many powerful questions at the base of the portion, lurking in the shadows, perhaps, is how a society rebuilds its moral vision and implements its social program after what one could term a revolutionary change. When the Book of Genesis ended, we saw the transition of a family into a tribe. When the Book of Exodus opened, we saw the development of a tribe into a nation. Now, this nation has had its covenantal-constitutional moment at Mount Sinai and has started the forging of its collective soul in the crucible of the wilderness experience. Mishpatim just vibrates with this new energy; it is the first set of coherent body of law that the Torah’s narrative gives us and it is powerful and compelling. This is the portion of monumental pieces of legislative work, protecting the stranger, advocating for the working poor, regulating chattel slavery, compensating injury and illness, honing our judicial instincts and our moral sensibilities.
Of course, that is not the only story of Mishpatim. There is a darker story there too; a story of hierarchy and subjugation, of prejudice and zealotry. There are laws speaking to realities of abuse and exploitation, of slavery, battery and misogyny. Calls to root out witchcraft and idolatry – defined entirely in the eyes of the beholder, of course. Mishpatim distills the Torah’s moral paradoxes down to its essence. This difficult but sacred tension allows us to read Mishpatim through the lenses we choose to wear; which makes its interpretation an equally meaningful and perilous project, one which we must approach with intellectual honesty and hermeneutical rigor.
Out of all the verses in Mishpatim that we could explicate, there are two verses that bring together this rich portion. They are relatively obscure verses, overshadowed by verses expressing far loftier sentiments, but here they sit, back-to-back, beckoning us to grapple with it.
“Ki tifga shor oyiv’cha o chamoro to’eh hasev t’shiveinu lo.
Ki tireh hacmor sona’acha rovetz tachat masav v’chadalta me’azov lo azov ta’azov imo.”
“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering, you must take it back. When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it.” (Ex. 22:4-5)
Mishpatim is a polarizing text and it would not be a stretch to read it in that light, to succumb to the pull of its zeal, to be indoctrinated by the charge of its righteousness. Mishpatim pulls no punches; it is principled and steadfast. Yet, embedded here, in the middle of a broad swath of legislation on how to run an uncompromisingly ethical and holy society, there is compassion and nuance, a bridging of the gap, a crossing of the aisle. Onkelos, the famous rabbinic translator of the Torah into the Targum, the Aramaic, adds the obligation to help unload the beast of burden in his translation. It is not just about raising the animal – for the sake of the animal’s comfort and wellbeing itself – but about helping a person you normally wouldn’t encounter, or who you might actively avoid encountering. This is ‘son’cha’ and ‘oyv’cha’ – two strong words translating as ‘your hated one’ and ‘your enemy’. It is intriguing that the Torah uses two different words to describe the fraught relationship between individuals. You may hate someone for their values or beliefs. You may consider them an enemy due to opposing interests or a power differential. Yet, the Torah orchestrates an encounter of proximity. You have to reach out to the other; talk to them, shoulder heavy burdens together. Raise up the animal and its burden and perhaps implicitly and more importantly, raise up the burden of hatred from your own heart.
Embedded among the forcefulness of a revolutionary Parashah is the key that unlocks ways to resolve conflict, reduce tension and get to the heart of the things that divide us. No just society can stand on legislation alone. Din, judgment, must always be tempered by chesed, mercy. The scales of righteousness are balanced not only by their weights but also by grace. Even in a society like that of Mishpatim, where we expect trauma, tension and polarization to run high, there are mechanism to break these patterns and move forward as a culture in formation and development.
The Torah provides us roadmaps and metaphors for our own lives and times. We are invited to reflect on raising the burdens of those we don’t see eye-to-eye with, to seek the encounter with those who we might feel existentially threatened by, to be in close proximity of the humanity of those who we can so easily dehumanize. Perhaps of all Mishpatim’s lofty ideals, this is the loftiest one yet. May we continue to move through our times with this lived wisdom and temper our righteousness with kindness.