By Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, Ph.D.
We last left the Israelites standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, and this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18), picks up in the same location. They aren’t wandering. They aren’t on the move. They are becoming…becoming the People of Israel.
The ingredients to form a tribal nation have now been added to the mix. The Israelites have shared experiences as a people—slavery, plagues, and redemption–and each year at the Passover seder, they will retell the story of these happenings. What’s more, last week’s revelation atop Mount Sinai amid shaking mountains, thunder, and yes, even silence, introduced them to the awe-inspiring power of YHWH, so they know their God. And this week, they receive laws that dictate how to live in their society—laws that establish penalties for murder, homicide, negligence, and more.
Becoming the People of Israel, however, is about more than jurisprudence, obeying commandments, or following the letter of the law. The Israelites, often called a “light unto the nations,” need a mission, an ideal to which to aspire. Parashat Mishpatim sets eternal goals for the Israelites and for today’s Jews:
1. Be a nation that provides for and protects those at greatest risk in society. As this week’s parashah teaches:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 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 orphans.” (Exodus 22:20-23)
The Israelite God, hearing our ancestors’ pleas for freedom from oppression, redeemed them—and us—from slavery. Upon being saved, we became God’s partners in caring for those who cry out. Our forefathers and foremothers, using the Torah as a guide, created societies with measures in place to ensure the safety of those at risk. This responsibility was passed to the next generation, again and again, and today, we, too, are charged to take on this mission in our own lives and communities.
2. The youth will lead the way. Also in this week’s parashah, we read: He [Moses] sent the youth of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD. (Exodus 24:5)
The tribes of Israel stood before Moses, arranged by family. The elders and dignitaries of this newborn nation stood closest to their appointed leader. They were ready to be tasked, and in time, they would be given their assignments. But not yet. First, they seized the opportunity, led by their youth, to celebrate as a free people, through sacrifice and prayer, their renewed relationship with God. According to a famous midrash (Midrash Rabbah, Song of Songs, 1:4), the youth are the guarantors of the Torah. In Moses’ day as in ours, it is the youth—in close touch with their ideals— who lead. Their example obligates us, their elders, to act with integrity as we strive toward a better tomorrow.
In 2021, Jews still rely on a societal structure originally laid out for our people in the desert. On Passover we recall our formation story that began with the miraculous exodus from Egypt. Seven weeks later, on Shavuot, we celebrate revelation at Mount Sinai, when YHWH became the God of the Israelites as a nation. The laws, however, the third component of societal formation have evolved since the time of the giving of the Torah. No longer do we claim an “eye for an eye” as just; neither do we keep slaves. Yet the mission assigned to the Israelites in the desert is as powerful today as it was then: We must strive to care for and protect those most at risk, and in doing so, we will be guided by our children, ensuring a bright future for them and for us.