This week's Torah portion, called Mishpatim in Hebrew, raises those same issues of societal values for a community in the distant past, perhaps for the first time in recorded history. Mishpatim is an extensive law code (the Hebrew word "mishpatim" literally means "laws"). The portion contains a series of rules and theories about appropriate human behavior, as the ancient Hebrews understood it.
Archaeologists have uncovered earlier codes, the laws of Hamurabi or Eshnuna, but these are authoritarian decrees handed down by a powerful lord and enforced by his guards and army.
The community of Jews at Mount Sinai is in a different situation. Moses, their human leader, has at best a fairly tenuous hold on their loyalty. There are no guards, no armies, to enforce obedience. The laws of the Torah will need to stand on communal consensus based on group morality and participation. In many ways the Hebrews of the wilderness face a political situation far more similar to our own than to that of the totalitarian world they fled.
The social regulations of this portion engage basic categories of human interaction. There is criminal law: punishments for murder, kidnap, sexual battery, assault, and theft. There is commercial law about torts, damages, agency, negligence, and property. There are environmental laws about crop management and ritual laws about various ceremonies.
For example, this Torah portion engages the issue of when human life begins. One has only to listen to various Republican candidates to know that we are not as clear about this matter as is the Torah. In Exodus, the penalty for causing a fetal miscarriage is monetary--a property crime--while in the same instance, if the pregnant woman is accidentally killed, the penalty is for the crime of negligent homicide. The Torah thus teaches that human life does not begin at conception.
Twice the portion weighs in on appropriate attitudes to foreigners and resident aliens, "Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt." America is still grappling with that one. How do we as a society treat immigrants and undocumented foreigners? Most Americans were once strangers somewhere, how present is that memory in our social behavior?
But the most important part of this portion is not whether its laws are still literally applicable given the centuries of social change that have transpired since their promulgation. This portion underscores the importance of change. Since the days of Moses, Judaism developed a methodology to maintain, through interpretation, the relevance of Torah over time.
Our Sages teach that alongside the written laws of Torah, God "whispered" an oral law to Moses. According to rabbinic tradition, the oral law was passed down through the centuries, and provides the basis for all of rabbinic and post-rabbinic literature about morality and ethical values. It teaches us to understand the Torah using skills of analogy, metaphor, and personal insight.
Using the methods of the oral law, traditional Jewish scholars could deduce solutions to modern problems given the discussions in Torah of oxen that are known to gore, fire hazards in a field, freedom for a bondwoman, etc. The laws of Torah have stayed vibrant and relevant for over two thousand years through the process of connection, study, and interpretation. As our sages taught, "Turn it and turn it; everything is in it."
The blessing for Torah study isn't that we obey Torah or even that we believe Torah but rather, "Blessed are you Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sacralizes us with moral deeds, and enjoins us to engage with Torah." Amen
The Hebrews who wandered in the wilderness knew apathy, cynicism, and despair. Yet they maintained and kept faith. I hope that I do not seem irreverent in making an analogy to our own condition. This is a time when we turn our communal attention to our secular political system. We need not thoughtlessly obey it, nor even necessarily always believe in it, but it is a mitzvah to engage it.