In our desire to provide you with the teaching of Messiah Yeshua in a Jewish context, we provide in-depth teachings of the weekly Torah portions throughout the year. Below are various perspectives from various teachers and staff members from Netivyah Bible Instruction ministry.
Joseph Shulam: God’s Laws Are for Us Today 
Mishpatim is the reading from the Torah this Shabbat. It is from Exodus 21:1 – 24:18. The reading from the prophets is from Jeremiah 33:25,26, 34:8-22. The reading from the New Testament is from Mark 1:1 – 2:28.
Right after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, Moses elaborates in practical details the meaning of the commandments. Mishpatim is translated as “judgments”, literally it means laws, or precepts. I find it very interesting that after the lofty Ten Commandments that were heard by all the people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, the first judgment starts with the lowest class of people in the camp of Israel:
“Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him.” – Exodus 21:1-3 [NKJV]
God gives Moses these laws, and He starts with the Hebrew slave. He arranges the status of this Hebrew slave (servant) and the status of this man’s family. This is the most basic right of a human being – the preservation of his family. However, at the same time God protects the financial interest of the slave owner.
Today this must look really odd in the eyes of Western civilization. Slavery is considered totally wrong under any circumstances, although slavery still exists in many parts of the world, especially in Africa, South Arabia, and the Emirates.
There are also other kinds of slavery that exist all around the world. The worst of all slavery today is what is called “white slaves”, meaning women who are enslaved as sex slaves and trafficked mainly from former Soviet countries to the West. They are used and sold between those criminal traders in human flesh as “things”, not as fellow human beings.
There are financial slaves in many of the Gulf States in the Persian Gulf. They are imported from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries. Their passports are taken, and their living conditions are usually appalling. Their salaries are manipulated with terms that were not revealed to them before they agreed to work in these states. With all the sorrow of slavery, God is administrating the situation in the camp of Israel and being fair to both the slave and his family, and the owner.
The next judgement (law) that God gives Moses for the children of Israel is actually dealing with a Hebrew female slave. Her master must betroth her (marry her). If he does not like her, the husband must allow her to be redeemed. He can not sell her to someone else as a slave.
“And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.” – Exodus 21:7-11 [NKJV]
Note that if the owner does not marry her, he can marry her to his son, and the son has to deal with her like all the daughters of Israel. In other words, she will not be as a slave, but like a free woman married normally. If he does not treat her right, and provide her with all her rights, she goes out free without any financial obligations.
We must understand that these laws are miles ahead of every law of every other nation. Egyptian laws, Assyrian laws, Babylonian, Persian, and even much later laws like Roman and Greek laws. I want to bring you examples from two of the most ancient codified laws:
Ur-Nammu is the oldest known law code surviving today. In the Sumerian language c. 2100–2050 BC.
About slaves: “If a slave marries a native (i.e. free) person, he/she is to hand the firstborn son over to his owner. If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt.”
The Code of Hammurabi was trying to achieve equality. Biases still existed against those the lower end of the social spectrum, and some of the punishments and justice could be gruesome. The magnitude of criminal penalties often was based on the identity and gender of both the person committing the crime and the victim. The Code issues justice following the three classes of Babylonian society: property owners, freed men, and slaves.
For example, if a doctor killed a rich patient, he would have his hands cut off, but if he killed a slave, only financial restitution was required. Women could also receive punishments that their male counterparts would not, as men were permitted to have affairs with their servants and slaves, whereas married women would be harshly punished for committing adultery.
Ex. Law #196: “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one damages the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price.”
The Torah that God gave Moses for Israel to live by is a concession to the culture and times, but it is far above any of the other laws that existed in the world during that period.
Just look at this law from the Torah in comparison to the code of Hammurabi:
“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth.” – Ex. 21:26,27 [NKJV]
In both in the Ur-Nammu laws and in the code of Hammurabi, if a man strikes the eye or the tooth of a slave, all he has to pay is two shekels of silver.
In this Torah portion, not only laws concerning man and woman are legislated, but also the treatment of farm animals is regulated. The Word of God presents a holistic attitude, and regulates relationship between men and women, free or slaves, and also relationship towards animals, public safety, and regulations between children and their parents. The Torah addresses a wide spectrum of legal matters that would make life in a community fair and just for all.
The teaching of the apostle Paul is often misunderstood and misappropriated to serve a lawless society, based on a false understanding of the essence of law and order for a human society and community. If you start looking in the teaching of Yeshua (Jesus) in the Gospels, you immediately see parables like the wise man and the foolish man, where the wise man is the one who hears and does (keeps the commandments) and the foolish man is the one who hears the commandments and ignores them.
Obedience to God’s laws is commanded by all the writers of the New Testament, including the apostle Paul and John and Peter, and for sure James. Here are some examples from the letters:
“…but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath…” – Romans 2:8 [NKJV]
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.” – Romans 6:12 [NKJV]
“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” – Romans 6:16 [NKJV]
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?” – Galatians 3:1 [NKJV]
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” – Ephesians 6:1 [NKJV]
“Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” – Colossians 3:20 [NKJV]
“Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.” – Colossians 3:22 [NKJV]
“And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:14 [NKJV]
“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work…” – Titus 3:1 [NKJV]
“And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him…” – Hebrews 5:9 [NKJV]
“Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives…” – 1 Peter 3:1 [NKJV]
“For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” – 1 Peter 4:17 [NKJV]
“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” – 1 John 2:3 [NKJV]
“And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” – 1 John 3:22 [NKJV]
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” – 1 John 5:2,3 [NKJV]
So, please don’t be allergic to keeping the commandments, at least the commandments that Yeshua (Jesus) and His apostles have given us. If you start counting the commandments that Yeshua and the apostles have given us, you would be surprised how many and how broad the spectrum of these commandments is.
In the New Testament alone, we have commandments that deal with how we should raise our children and how we should treat our wives, and how the wives should treat their husbands, and what is allowed to eat and what is not allowed to eat. We have commandments about money and charity, and worship, and leadership in the church, and relationship with the government, the taxes, worship, giving, justice and social issues… I propose to you that most churches don’t even teach that a disciple of Yeshua the Messiah should keep even the most basic commandments and requirements of our Lord and His apostles.
Yes, we are not under the law, and we ought not to be under the law! However, we must still be obedient to the commandments of God. To be under the law means to be burdened so much that we forget the grace of God, and everything becomes an unpleasant task. In this kind of situation, we are not happy, and God is even less happy about us. Look at what Paul said about the law of God:
“For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.” – Romans 7:22 [NKJV]
Here are some examples of the Old Testament:
“I delight to do Your will, O my God, And Your law is within my heart.” – Psalms 40:8 [NKJV]
“Let Your tender mercies come to me, that I may live; For Your law is my delight.” – Psalms 119:77 [NKJV]
“Unless Your law had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction.” – Psalms 119:92 [NKJV]
“I long for Your salvation, O LORD, And Your law is my delight.” – Psalms 119:174 [NKJV]
We depend on the grace of God because of our weakness, but we enjoy the love of God because of Yeshua our Messiah, and we must do our best to follow Him and serve Him and obey His commands. The Gospels are so clear with this message, but there are teachers who twist and lead astray God’s flock in order to aggrandize themselves.
Let us stay humble and do our best to be not only hearers of the Word of God but doers also. Read the Torah portion and the prophets too.
Joseph Shulam: The Biblical Concept of Equality 
This upcoming Shabbat the reading in the synagogues will be Parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18. The Haftarah (reading from the prophets) is Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25,26. The reading from the New Testament is Matthew 26:20–30.
This text from the book of Exodus is of key importance nowadays. The Word of God is under attack, not by Muslims, and not by Jews, but by Christian pastors and professors in some Christian institutions. With the authority and integrity of the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, being questioned and destroyed – the very base of our knowledge of God and faith in Yeshua as the Messiah.
Our faith in God and in Yeshua is not a faith in lawlessness! Law and order are the basis of any cultured society. There has to be law and order, because the Lord God is not a God of confusion, and a society has to have regulations on every issue from property laws, to regulations on trade and finances, and every marriage includes promises and vows from each of the partners in the marriage to the other. There cannot be a rental of an apartment without a contract that regulates the period of the rental and the price of the rent.
Parashat Mishpatim starts in Exodus 21:1 with the issue of slavery, Hebrew slaves have different laws and rules than non-Hebrew slaves. For us in the 21st Century this sounds wrong, but in fact the Torah is super-just and righteous to all, including to the local people, the Hebrews, and the stranger that is either passing through or staying for a season in the camp of Israel.
First, even the apostle Paul says:
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” – Galatians 6:10 [ESV]
Humanism of the 21st Century, based on the French Revolution cry for equality, has taken this very important and valuable social order to the absurd. The value of equality has been out of proportions and from a very positive and important social principle for correcting unrighteousness and prejudice, it has become an excuse for unrighteous destruction of the very human nature.
Men and women are equal before the Almighty Creator of all, who will judge all mankind equality, but they are not equal in their physiology. They deserve the same pay for the same work, but men cannot give birth and suffer in the process of giving birth. Same-sex marriages can’t reproduce and replenish the earth. In order to have children they have to hire a surrogate mother in India or Nepal or somewhere else in the world. In most countries children are equal to their parents but they cannot be sent to work and bring money home before they are at least 16 years old.
There has to be law to run any organization, corporation, business, family or country. The new teaching, that is actually an old teaching from the second half of the 2nd Century after Christ, is that teaching that the church (or the Christians) don’t need anything from the so-called “Old Testament”.
Please read the laws in Exodus 21:1 – 24:18 and see the great wisdom and importance, and grace in what God gave to the Hebrews from Mount Sinai, and how important it is for today’s church to take the principles from there and apply them to our lives and synagogues and churches. Here are a few examples from Parashat Mishpatim:
“When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed.” – Exodus 21:18,19 [ESV]
“When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall be his.” – Exodus 21:33,34 [ESV]
“If fire breaks out and catches in thorns so that the stacked grain or the standing grain or the field is consumed, he who started the fire shall make full restitution.” – Exodus 22:6 [ESV]
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.” – Exodus 22:16,17 [ESV]
“If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” – Exodus 22:25-27 [ESV]
“You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” – Exodus 23:1-3 [ESV]
Can a society live righteously without laws like these? In the earliest codes of law of humanity some identical or very similar laws like these were already legislated. People in Mesopotamia and north of the Euphrates River in the 3rd Millennium before Christ already realized that such laws are necessary for having a just and orderly society.
The Torah is actually the greatest demonstration of God’s grace for humanity, and a true revelation of His nature. Remember that when Yeshua returns, He is coming to judge the world and many, many people mercilessly will be sent to hell for ever and ever.
God’s grace is there from the beginning, and the Torah and relationship of the Lord to Israel is the most forgiving and the most gracious and loving revelation of God’s character, full of grace and truth, lovingkindness, and mercy. Just read Exodus 34:5,6 and see the very revelation of God’s nature and relationship to humanity.
Joseph Shulam: Caring for Everyone in Your Society 
This week’s Torah reading is called Mishpatim (“ordinances”, “judgments”, or “statutes”). It starts in Exodus chapter 21:1 and ends in chapter 24:18. There are some very important principles in this portion of the Torah reading this Shabbat.
The Torah teaches that if you commit premeditated (planned) murder, you will pay with your own life. However, if you kill a person by accident, God has provided for you a city of refuge, and when the high priest dies you and all the other people who are in the city of refuge will go free, and no one can harm you.
Here we find a very interesting principle that is used in dealing with the question of death that atones for sins committed by mistake or without malicious intent. The death of the high priest in Israel during biblical times when, we had a temple and priests, atoned for those sins committed without malicious intent. And the men and women who were in the cities of refuge were released. This is an important principle of the Torah that demonstrates that the death of a third party can atone and release a person of guilt for such a serious crime as killing a person out of things like negligence or accident.
Another principle that is introduced in chapter 23 is the issue of “an eye for an eye”. The real issue is not that of retribution for damage inflicted on an other person, but the compensation that the guilty person has to give in order to compensate for an accidentally-committed bodily damage to a person.
The compensation is the value of an eye for an eye. The value of a tooth for a tooth. The value of a hand for a hand. The value of a foot for a foot. The value of a burn for a burn. The value of a wound for a wound. The value of a bruise for a bruise. The fact that the Torah elaborates the principle with so many examples is a clear indication that the Torah is dealing with financial compensation that is normally appointed by the rules of the court.
We see this principle well-demonstrated in our reading this Shabbat, when the discussion is in a chase of a slave that is damaged in his eye or in tooth – because is a Hebrew slave – if you as his master don’t take care to provide him with the proper protection, and an eye of your slave is damaged, the price of his eye is total freedom from slavery.
Even if the slave loses a tooth he is set free as compensation for his loss. In other words, the value of a slave’s eye or tooth is much greater than the value of an eye of a stranger that happened to pass by and have his eye damaged.
I like this principle very much because it puts the responsibility on the master to take double care and protection that the slave that he owns (temporarily) is secured and guaranteed.
We see here that even though the Torah was written during a period when slavery was common in the whole Middle East, and actually in the world, the Torah takes special precautions to give the slave extra privileges.
How do I interpret these principles today? Those people who are under our care as employees or guests, or those who are less fortunate in our society, deserve not only the same protection and privileges as anyone else, but more care because of their dependence on you and on the society and community.
This practice of the Torah would have solved so much suffering and so much pain and so much injustice even in our world today. If our communities, churches, and synagogues, would learn this principle I can imagine major success in evangelism and in real “church growth”. Yes, it would be not only a real and good “church growth”, but also a healthy growth that will produce a just and righteous community in a world that is so full of unrighteousness.
Muriel Stern: You Will Always Have the Poor 
Compared to some of the other Torah portions this one does not have a whole lot of action. The people of Israel were still camped out by the mountain of the Lord. God called Moses to come up and take Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 of the elders with him. He alone could approach the Lord, the others must not come near but worship from a distance. The people had to stay at the foot of the mountain.
But first Moses built an altar and set up 12 stones that represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Young men prepared sacrifices and burnt offerings of young bulls. Half of the blood was splashed against the altar. The book of the covenant was read, and all the people said they’d obey the Lord. The blood of the covenant was sprinkled on the people.
The 74 men made their way up to the mountain. They saw the lord, ate and drank. The Lord called Moses to come up to the mountain again, this time to receive the stone tablets with the law and commandments written on them. Moses and his aide, Joshua, went up. A cloud covered the mountain for six days, and on the seventh day Moses entered the mountain, after the Lord called him from within the cloud. He stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights.
But while this portion doesn’t have as much happening as others, it has a lot of the Lord’s instructions. The Lord spoke, a lot. And it is very relevant for us today to read what the Lord told the Israelites many, many years ago.
In addition, this passage stood out to me:
“Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering you neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” – Exodus 22:22-27 [NIV]
Widows and orphans? Needy from among the people? Wait a minute, why is the Lord given instructions on how to deal with this? Did the Lord anticipate that the people would turn away from Him, giving laws on how to deal with the consequences? Maybe?
Later on the Lord says He’ll bless the people with a full life span (Exodus 23:26), so how can there be needy widows? And were they not on their way to the land of plenty? How can there be needy?
Later on in Deuteronomy 15:7-11 we again read about how to be generous to the poor. Yeshua referred to this verse after Mary poured perfume on his feet.
“You will always have the poor among you…” – John 12:8a [NIV]
The simple and most logical explanation is indeed that the Lord knew what was coming. The people would disobey, and as a result they’d have these kind of issues to deal with. Better to give them instructions now, so they’d be prepared.
But I want to offer up another thought. The people were going to the land the Lord had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was the Promised Land, but it was not heaven.
And in real life there is suffering and hardship. The Lord foretold that the people would be slaves for 400 years, He told so to Abraham.
It was part of His plan. It is a part that I don’t understand, but I trust that the Lord knows what He is doing. The people who received these instructions firsthand were the actual ones who suffered because the Lord had a bigger plan.
There was going to be more suffering. There would be widows and orphans, and needy people. Life was going to have hardships. Not because of anything they did wrong or sin. But because the Lord, in His wisdom, and for reasons beyond our understanding, allowed it. And He gave instructions on how to deal with it in a way that would bring glory to His name.
Our purpose here on Earth is to bring glory to God. We do so in victory as well as in times of trouble. We do so when our prayers for deliverance are answered, just as we do in a season of waiting. Hardship is part of the plan, part of our lives here on this earth.
The Lord told us how He would like us to deal with the difficulties, the ones we see and the ones we experience. May we chose to do so in a way that honors the Lord.
Yehuda Bachana: Is Our Compassion Making Us Cruel? 
Read the teaching below, or watch a video of the teaching by Yehuda Bachana.
These are the laws you are to set before them… – Exodus 21:1 [NIV]
After the Ten Commandments are given, there is a long list of laws and orders related to the course of life, such as a person’s property, responsibility for this property, laws of loss, and the relationship between the citizen and the government.
This Shabbat I want to talk a bit about the contrast between the exciting and the mundane, between the extraordinary and the ordinary. Then I want to talk a little about mercy, fair trial, and justice.
Many commentators tend to see Parashat Yitro and Parashat Mishpatim as complementary, one following after the other. The giving of the Torah begins with the Ten Commandments in Parashat Yitro, and then continues on in Parashat Mishpatim.
I would like to suggest otherwise, that there is a contrast between these two Torah portions, as opposed to a connection. The contrast is in the fact that these parashot present two contradicting mental and spiritual states.
The portion in which the Torah is given culminates in a one-time revelation. And Parashat Mishpatim is about the daily requirements of human society.
The difference between exciting and ordinary
Last week we read the portion of Yitro, the portion of the Ten Commandments. When we read the Ten Commandments, it is customary in Israel to stand. And in our congregation we stood, and we thought about the weight of the matter. In last week’s Torah portion, God Himself came down from heaven in order to give us, to all humanity, the Tablets of the Law.
Last week’s parasha was a climax, God’s one-time revelation to all the people. The excitement was tremendous, the whole nation saw it. There was awe, a real fear in the hearts of the people. There was a full pyrotechnics display: smoke, fire, voices, noises, rumbling. And there was an emotional high.
The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is a foundational event for the Jewish people throughout the ages. But immediately afterwards comes the great fall of the Golden Calf.
There are more stories in which there are great, exciting, and tremendous events, followed by a big fall. In the story of the creation of the world, we read about the creation of nature, the animals, the garden. Everything is new, everything is fresh, everything is amazing. But immediately afterwards, we have a great fall and the disgraceful expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
The parting of the Red Sea is perhaps the greatest miracle in the Torah. The people of Israel are stuck between the desert and the sea. They see the Egyptian army closing in on them. The people cry to Moses, saying they would have preferred to be slaves in Egypt than to die “free” in the desert.
And at the height of pressure and fear, God parts the sea! Just thinking about it gets me excited. Think about it: an entire people, passing through the middle of the sea, with walls of water on each side. It’s an almost unimaginable image.
Then the sea closed over the entire Egyptian army. With a mighty miracle, God brought the people of Israel through the sea and destroyed the Egyptian army all in one blow. A mind-blowing miracle.
But what happens immediately after that? The people of Israel quarreled with Moses and God over water, and then about the food, then about the manna, and then again over the water.
People are all human beings. We need things to be regular, steady. We don’t do well with one-time events, especially when they take us to the peak of all spiritual experience.
We see that after the peak, then comes the fall. And the higher we are, the more painful the fall. Falling out of your chair hurts far less than falling from a skyscraper…
The balance of everyday life
As believers, we need to find the balance of everyday life. I think that most of us live in some kind of dualism. A spiritual peak at the end of the week, in being with the congregation, when we fervently debate the meaning of a particular verse or theology. (Ironically, these debates are usually on theoretical issues, which are not at all relevant to our daily lives. We debate and get angry mainly about “theoretical ideas”.)
On the other hand, during the week we live very secularly, very earthly, and very detached from the imaginary ideal that we demand of others in our debates over the weekend.
We must find the balance. To be less “spiritual” with false standards that are lofty and inaccessible, and to live our daily lives alongside Yeshua and our faith in Him, alongside our families, neighbors, and coworkers, and alongside those we interact with on a daily basis.
I think that Yeshua was against this natural human behavior, which exists today and existed even during the time of Yeshua. This hypocrisy, which demands much of the other, but is full of concessions when it comes to myself, which is hidden, because outwardly we like to look like righteous people.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see… – Matthew 23:2-5a [NIV]
Here is the place to ask: Do we demand much from others? Do we like to look more righteous than we really are?
Do our religious debates lead to unity or division? Anger? Or love? Are most of the issues we debate about relevant to everyday life? Or are they just theoretical?
In this matter, we must strive towards unity.
A Call for Justice
The second issue I want to talk about is justice.
Chapter 23 of our parasha opens with instructions for judgment in Israel – and the requirement for a fair trial. Meaning the forbiddance to take bribes, the forbiddance to listen to a false witness, etc.
In the course of proper judgment, we find two interesting verses, and I would like to examine them:
…and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit. – Exodus 23:3 [NIV]
Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. – Exodus 23:6 [NIV]
I think there are two ways in which most people relate to the rich and the poor. Some of the people, amongst the officials and the judges, take the side of the rich and powerful. And often it annoys us.
For example, a large company gets tax breaks on an unimaginable scale, and the ordinary citizen, or the small business, gets choked by taxes left and right – that’s not fair!
Or if we go into debt, the banks will incur all possible interest payments, including repossession, and take everything from us. When a large company goes into debt, banks often intervene and reduce the debt – again it’s not fair!
Sometimes when a rich person comes to the congregation, we make the mistake of saying to him, “Come, sit up front, in the place of honor.” And to the poor, or the helpless, we say, “Go to the back, do not stand out, and do not interfere.”
On the other hand, the feeling of compassion inherent in most of us wants to feel sorry for the poor, and we take the side of the underdog. In many cases we consider the poor person to be in the right.
This happens many times in the framework of civil or family law. But it also happens in the context of Israel and our Palestinian neighbors, often Israel is seen us as the strong, the ruling, the aggressors, and the Palestinians as the underdog to be supported. The world sees them as the victims.
God warns our judges, and us, not to look with pity on the defendant with the ragged clothes and the holes in his shoes, and justify him when it comes at the expense of another person.
Is our compassion making us cruel?
God requires a warm and compassionate heart on the one hand, and on the other hand, He requires of us to take a look at the cold, hard, facts. And from there we have to make a decision that is true and just without being blinded by the wealth, influence, and power of the strong, but on the other hand not to let our emotions intervene to justify the poor and helpless – if they are guilty.
Chazal, the Jewish sages, teach us an interesting principle:
He who is compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate. – Midrash Tanchuma, Metzora 1
This sentence was first taught in connection with the King Saul:
Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. – 1 Samuel 15:3 [NIV]
Saul did not fulfill the commandment:
But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good… – 1 Samuel 15:9b [NIV]
And later, when Saul suspected that the priests of Nob had cooperated and helped David, Saul killed them mercilessly:
He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep. – 1 Samuel 22:19 [NIV]
Saul had compassion on the Amalekites and did not want to kill them as he was commanded, and then he was cruel to the people of Nob and killed them in exactly the same way he was supposed to kill the Amalekites.
From there comes the aforementioned talmudic expression. But this expression is deep and important to us and our conduct even today.
The world community tends to silence problems and scandals of all kinds: assault, sexual harassment, theft, fraud, exploitation, injury, and more.
We tend to forgive, to give another chance, not to report to the police, not to publicly defame someone, according to the understanding that we are all sinners and we all need a second chance, and we all need Yeshua.
But here’s where this expression comes in: “He who is compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate.”
If we do not complain to the police about sexual assault, or allow a person who makes members of the opposite sex uncomfortable to remain in our society, who are we helping and who are we harming?
If we know that there is someone who exploits others in our society, financially or materially, and we turn a blind eye, who are we helping and who are we harming?
The requirement in this week’s parasha is for true justice. Emotion is good and important, compassion is important, but the requirement of our weekly Torah portion, the requirement of God, is to ignore the wretchedness of man, to examine the cold, hard facts, and to truly judge.
We must make sure to keep the good people in the community safe and not allow them to become victims.