Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) We “Know” By Doing!

Carole Leskin Photo/Used by permission.
Carole Leskin Photo/Used by permission.

Mishpatim is a very important and powerful portion which, following on the giving of the Ten Commandments, reminds the Israelites that these are the laws that will build the society that we now begin to create. V’eleh ha’mishpatim (Exodus 21:1) begins the portion, “and these are the rules” etc). We read a wide variety of laws and judgements, from slavery to ritual, from economics to family  dynamics. There are prof texts for abortion (21:22) and lending money, monetary compensation in light of personal injury, the treatment of the stranger as well as the social justice oriented verses on caring for the widow and orphan.

As I looked through the portion, I began to wonder of our generation now almost three years into Covid. How have we changed? What rules and mishpatim do we adhere to now that maybe we did not pre-pandemic? How do we honor the call to care for those who do not share in the abundance that so many of us have—especially in light of the acknowledged insecurities of food and access to health care? It is too easy to draw the curtains and shut out the world now. Yet, the demands of the world still cry out for action. We may not be able to impact such issues as Ukraine or political estrangement that mark our world, but, we can fulfill the spirit of this portion by remembering its call to rectify injustice.

In 22:21, when we read of the call to care for the widow and the orphan, we really, now, are being called on to remember those most impacted by the pandemic. We can donate clothes to homeless shelters. We can donate to local food banks. We can reach out and call those isolated and alone We know this because we are always reminded that no matter the social and economic staus that we now have, we were once “strangers in the Land of Egypt”.

And this reminder for action is echoed in the closing passages of the portion (24:7) when upon again hearing the words the people called out “all that God has spoken we will faithfully do”. The Hebrew is the famous line na’aseh v’nishmah, which we know is to know that by doing we come to understand what we are called upon in life. We have a life of experience, we have lived, and are living, and in doing so we have come to understand what our mission, purpose and life’s work is all about.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Richard F Address

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