In Essays

Parsha Mishpatim | In the Habit of Goring

Parsha Mishpatim ana-cernivec-ZzFUHsc9PCo-unsplash
Photo by Ana Cernivec on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Yitro.

Now that the Israelites are free again, they need to set some rules for their fledgling society. After all, you can’t have a society without rules. I know ardent anarchists would disagree with me on this, but I can’t imagine that’s a big chunk of my audience anyhow.

Parsha Mishpatim is all about laws. Right off the bat, we get important rules to live by, like: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.”

It gets worse.

“If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone.”

Torah God just can’t seem to contain Himself. Just when you think, “Oh, He freed them. That’s nice,” He lays down laws with twisted logic about how to handle one’s slaves.

I find the first caveat to be the cruelest (if it’s even possible to compare the horridness between them all). Because if you are forced into slavery and are somehow able to get through that heinous situation by finding love, you have to leave the master as a single person because that’s how you showed up.

But really, all of these caveats to the rule are pretty horrific. Then there’s one more:

“But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’ his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door of the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.”

I’m no expert on how rampant the slave trade was in this era, but I can’t imagine those fresh off of four-hundred-some-years of slavery themselves were really thinking about getting some slaves. This bit smells like it was written to address and benefit the Torah’s contemporary writers. It’s like the Santa Claus mythology.

“Why should I behave?”

“So you get presents at the end of the year.”

Parents clearly made it all up, giving children a fictionalized idea of how things have always worked to benefit their desires (kids who don’t behave like dicks all the time) in the present. The fact that the Torah’s scribes place such importance on the rules of having slaves makes me think they must’ve had slaves themselves and wanted to justify it by showing God giving the thumbs up.

Mum’s The Word

This breakdown of how to handle slave ‘rights’ continues. Interestingly, they include a scenario in which a daughter sold into slavery for the purposes of marrying the master’s son cannot have her “conjugal rights” withheld if the son marries another. In such a despicable section of supposedly holy text, it’s jarring to see that the writers were suddenly concerned about the daughter’s sexual rights; the daughter they hypothetically sold into slavery in the first place.

The laws go on and on, switching to various scenarios in which a man might kill another man and how to deal with the perpetrator. Then, there’s another jarring turn: “He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.”

Mum’s the word, literally.

And then we go back to owning slaves: “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then he must be avenged.”

Male or female? How progressive.

“But if the survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, since he is the other’s property.”

I gotta say, this really is an unusual amount of hot nonsense from the Torah. I really want to move on from all these seemingly arbitrary laws on slave ownership, but I’ll leave you with just one more that ups the ante on being bizarre:

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according to as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.”

That bit reads awfully specific. Clearly one of the scribes did this exact thing and is looking to cover his ass.

“In The Habit Of Goring”

The text continues with a bit you’re more than likely familiar with:

“But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

A vengeful God, indeed.

Now I really want to move on, because these caveats go on and on with more stipulations on how to handle slaves and then they try to figure out what to do with an ox that gores a man or woman to death.

Oh, wait! The ox one is actually kinda funny. See, if an ox gores a man or a woman to death, “the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished.”

Is stoning an ox really possible? I feel like you could line up a roster of Cy Young-winning pitchers and at best they’d just annoy the ox.

The text continues: “If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, although warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman––the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death.”

I know this is the kind of line scholarly types like to dissect and interpret. For example, the lesson here is that you are responsible for the actions of animals, things, etc. under your domain and must take responsibility. Swell. But what I love is the line, “in the habit of goring.” I chuckle every time I read it. I imagine a school of oxen and one has to stay after for detention because it, again, was “in the habit of goring.”

“Jeremy! Jeremy! Are you goring again? See me after class!”

A Change Of Heart

The laws continue, heightening the ridiculousness and specificity of each one. Then, the Lord finally takes a break from litigating about slaves and oxen to offer something we actually can still live by.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

This is an oft-cited line among Jews advocating for pro-immigrant policies. It’s a nice one––and even better before you realize its surrounded by ox laws.

God then gives us another that shows us how He can put His wrath to comparatively good use:

“You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children or orphans.”

Damn, God. That’s a hell of a threat. Now imagine Liam Neeson’s Taken character reading it for full effect.

No Gossip

God continues with more self-righteous indignation:

“If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor: exact no interest from them.”

See, if you can just dig past the odd bits about slaves and oxen, you can find some nice stuff here. Here’s another one I’m a fan of:

“You just not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness.”

In my study, I’ve found Judaism really isn’t a fan of gossiping and actively discourages it. I’m all on board for that. Even before my studying, I loathed gossip whether it was about a colleague or even a celebrity I’d likely never met. You just never know when that stuff will come full circle and bite you in the ass.

Speaking of going full circle, the Lord finds His way back to talking about oxen and repeats, with a bit more detail, His seemingly pro-immigrant message: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As the rules progress, they seem to make a bit more sense coming from a modern context––not that the bar was high considering where this Parsha started. We’re told to treat the poor fairly, to let the needy eat your crops on the seventh year, and to take a break from work on the Sabbath. All perfectly wonderful things.

Forty Days, Forty Nights

This particularly odd Parsha ends with Moses repeating these commands, given to him by God, to the Israelites. They quickly agree to follow the Lord’s rules (not that they were in a strong position to negotiate).

God then commands Moses to head back up the mountain (Moses living lifestyle fitness goals) so that He can give him the “stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” Aaron and Hur are left behind to handle any disputes that might come up in the meantime.

As instructed, Moses heads back up Mount Sinai into the clouds, remaining there for forty days and forty nights.

Onward with Parsha Terumah.

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