Torah Portion Mishpatim (Judgments ) Sh’mot (Exodus) 21-24
Haftorah Reading Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26
If you could summarize this Torah portion what would you say is the over-riding theme of these verses? As we start I want to say a word about the very first word of our section of scripture. In Hebrew it is actually two words, Va’eleh, which means, “And these.” These words, “and these” link what we just finished reading in last week’s portion to what we are about to read following these words. They should be understood in the same way as what proceeded. Last week we read the Ten Commandments that many would say, is the peak of G-d’s message to the people at the mountain. Therefore the words of our section tonight are to be read and understood in the same light. From our understanding of the Messianic scriptures we also see the same idea stressed over and over. James 1:27 says it plainly, ”Pure and undefiled religion before G-d and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble.” It stresses what should be the conduct of us all. The true test of a civilization is how it treats its elderly, poor and orphaned.
Now let us look at our verses and see what they say to us about how we are to act toward people. We will start with the second verse of our reading. This has to do with how you are to relate to a slave, a Hebrew slave, a fellow Israelite. First, his or her condition was not until death do they part, but it was limited to 7 years. The slave was then to be released to resume his life as a free person. What is different here in how slaves where to be treated as opposed to other countries? Their condition had limits and those limits were to be observed. They had hope because of that. G-d took this very seriously. We read in the Prophet reading in Jeremiah for this week G-d’s reaction when His people continued to disobey and not follow these judgments. His judgment was harsh. He came to the defense of the slaves and brought severe judgment on the people who had violated these words we read tonight. G-d takes our actions seriously and judges how we treat or relate to the powerless. He is their defender and shield.
We read the same idea in other verses in our portion. In Exodus 22:21-27 we read how G-d saw the oppression of the stranger in the land, the powerless widow or orphan. Interestingly here, unlike other offenses that might come before a court and settled, G-d would come to their defense directly and swiftly. G-d would not wait for the authorities to act. He would react Himself, exacting harsh penalties on the society that allowed the powerless to be taken advantage of or forgotten.
Again, in Exodus 22:21 G-d was a defender of the stranger. What do all of these cases we read about tonight, as well as the others which do have a judicial remedy, show us about how G-d expects His people to live? G-d expects His people to reach out to people who are hurting or in need, people who have no power and are at the mercy of society.
The command of how we are to relate to strangers is especially important to us today. The natural tendency of man is to band together in like-minded groups. We band together with people who are like us, socially, economically, ethnically, or religiously. The problem comes when this bond becomes so deep that we see “the other” as a threat because they are different and difference can’t be tolerated. G-d expects and scripture teaches that His people are to be able to reach outside of themselves to empathize with people who may be different. We are called to touch people who are in pain no matter who they are. This goes deeper than sympathy. Sympathy can be good but it does not always result in action. It does not necessarily result in reaching out. The Southern saying, “well bless their heart” isn’t enough. G-d expects His people to do, not to just talk. All the verses that I have pointed out tonight speak of that, of actually being involved, being active when we see people being taken advantage of or beaten down by government or society or circumstances.
In fact, G-d says in effect, that one of the reasons for their captivity and one of the things that the people should have learned during their captivity was to act differently than how they were treated when relating to strangers and the powerless.
Our life as G-d’s people must be marked by our concern for the oppressed, the stranger, the widow and orphan, simply for those who are at the mercy of the world.