This parashah is known in Hebrew as Sefer Ha-brit, the Book of the Covenant. It contains the first body of laws in the Torah. These rules, a combination of moral imperatives, social standards, civil and criminal injunctions, and rules for proper worship, are all recognised as the will of God, the embodied consequence of the distinct relationship between God and the people of Israel.
Beginning with laws concerning slaves, the Torah establishes a kind of indentured servitude for a fellow Hebrew, who must go free after seven years of enslavement. If the eved ivri, Hebrew slave, wishes to remain with master, wife and children, he is taken to a door and his ear is pierced with an awl, after which he is a slave for life. The Torah also establishes procedures for the female slave, the amah.
In a section on criminal legislation, the Torah lays out three capital offenses: murder, injuring parents physically, and kidnapping. The punishment for crimes of bodily injury caused by human attack is limited to no more than an equivalent loss: “an eye for an eye”. A homicidal beast is to be killed. A thief is to repay the lost object and four (for an ox) or three (for a sheep) more animals as restitution. Responsibility to care for loaned items is enforced, whether these items are fixed property or an animal. Seducing an unmarried woman forces the seducer to pay her bride price or to marry her.
A second section of Mishpatim lays out a variety of categorical laws, known as apodictic laws: prohibition of sorcery and idolatry; justice for foreigners, widows, and orphans; extending loans for the poor; respect for God; honesty in courts; humane treatment of one’s enemy; and a series of agricultural laws. Mishpatim then lays out the calendar of the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. God reiterates a promise to protect the Israelites during their wanderings, and commands the Israelites to remain distinct and true to their covenant.
Finally, Moses and the elders repeat all the commands and rules of the Lord aloud, and the people affirm their loyalty to the covenant and its commandments with one voice. As the elders and people celebrate the new partnership with God, Moses goes up to the mountaintop to receive the stone tablets containing God’s inscription of the laws and rules.
Moses remains hidden in the clouds for forty days and nights.
Based on The Bedside Torah by Rabbi Bradley Artson
Questions for discussion
- Why is a Jewish covenant made up of rules and standards?
- Why are injuring parents and kidnapping capital offenses, comparable to murder?
- Why is this a new partnership with God? Which was the “old one”?