Torah — God in Human Terms

Even the smallest commandment of the Torah is suffused with godliness.

A row of Law books on a shelf (Image: Bigstock)

Portion Summary & Scripture Reading

Regular Shabbat Readings

  • Mishpatim (משפטים | Judgments)
  • Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18
  • Haftarah: 2 Kings 11:17-12:17
  • Gospel: Matthew 26:20-30

* References are from the Hebrew Bible. Christian Bibles vary slightly when indicated with *.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Exodus 21:1 | The Law concerning Slaves
    • Exodus 21:12 | The Law concerning Violence
    • Exodus 21:28 | Laws concerning Property
    • Exodus 22:1 | Laws of Restitution
    • Exodus 22:16 | Social and Religious Laws
    • Exodus 23:1 | Justice for All
    • Exodus 23:10 | Sabbatical Year and Sabbath
    • Exodus 23:14 | The Annual Festivals
    • Exodus 23:20 | The Conquest of Canaan Promised
    • Exodus 24:1 | The Blood of the Covenant
    • Exodus 24:9 | On the Mountain with God
  • Prophets
    • Jer 34:8 | Treacherous Treatment of Slaves
    • Jer 33:14 | The Righteous Branch and the Covenant with David

When the parashah is read on Shabbat Shekalim (as in 2020, 2021, 2023, 2026, 2028, and 2029), even if such Shabbat coincides with Shabbat Rosh Chodesh or Shabbat Machar Chodesh, the haftarah is 2 Kings 12:1–17.

Portion Summary

The eighteenth reading from the Torah is named Mishpatim (משפטים), which means "judgments." The title comes from the first words of the first verse of the reading, which could be literally translated to say, "And these are the judgments which you will place before them" (Exodus 21:1). The first three chapters of this Torah portion deliver a legal code of laws and commandments that form a nucleus for the Torah's laws. The last chapter tells the story of how the people of Israel consented to keep these laws and entered into a covenant relationship with God through a series of rituals conducted by Moses.

Modern, Western readers find many of the laws in this Torah portion harsh, primitive, or otherwise distasteful. The laws reflect a different world from our own. When the Torah begins to speak in a matter-of-fact manner about the institution of slavery, about selling one’s daughter, about repaying measure-for-measure, it disconcerts the modern reader. He is tempted to comfort himself with the notion that the unpleasant laws have been done away with by the New Testament and replaced by kinder, gentler, and nobler virtues.

On the contrary, the mouth of God spoke every commandment of Torah. Human society may change, but God does not change. Each mitzvah is holy and eternal. Every commandment distills His essence and communicates a pure revelation of His person. The study of the commandments is the study of God.

As soon as we begin to discard commandments, we have begun editing God and reshaping the Almighty into an image which we deem more appropriate. The Torah contains both law and revelation. It provides a rule of conduct, but at the same time, it expresses God in human terms. If a person realizes that Torah is God’s own self-disclosure to the world, he will appreciate the enormous gravity of declaring that same Torah null or void. Even the smallest commandment of the Torah is suffused with godliness. To declare a commandment irrelevant or obsolete denies the eternal and unchanging nature of God.

The Torah contains laws about murder, abuse, murdering one’s parents, slavery, bestiality, incest, and a host of disagreeable things. How can this be a holy, godly revelation of the Infinite Light? The Apostle Paul explained, “All things become visible when they are exposed by the light” (Ephesians 5:13).

The Talmud reminds us that “the Torah was not given to angels.” Instead, God gave the Torah to flawed and sinful human beings. The Torah speaks directly into human society with all of its wrinkles, and it speaks in the language of the flawed and imperfect in order to infuse godliness into the world. It has descended from a very high place (God) to a very low place (man), yet it has still retained its godly essence. That godly essence might be wrapped in garments of human concern (such as the laws of slavery or compensation for negligence), but if one takes the trouble to unwrap the commandment, it will blaze forth in his hands with the brilliance of heaven.

Paul alludes to the dichotomy of the holy, concealed within matters of the profane. He tells Timothy that the Torah is good if one uses it “lawfully,” that is in the administration of justice:

But we know that the [Torah] is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that [Torah] is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching. (1 Timothy 1:8-10)

More from Mishpatim

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Adapted From: Torah Club Commentary Set: Depths of the Torah. Learn more about Torah Club and how you can start a Club of your own, or join a Torah Club in your area. Visit TORAHCLUB.ORG

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