Tough-Love with Torah

Just because the death penalty cannot be enforced today does not mean the law is off the books. Each one of these sins carries the same grievous weight.

Teenager deep in thought during a counseling session (Image © Bigstock)

Mishpatim

Regular Shabbat Readings

Read / Listen to these Portions

  • Mishpatim (משפטים | Judgments)
  • Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18
  • Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26
  • Gospel: Matthew 26:20-30

Note: The regular readings are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the annual Torah Portion schedule for these special portions.

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

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.


In God's book, it is just as grievous a sin to curse one's parents or to strike them as it is to murder someone. "For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death' (Mark 7:10).

The Torah says that murderers, kidnappers, and insolent children are to be put to death. "He who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:15).

There is no indication that the parent was killed or even badly hurt in the altercation with the child. The mere act of hitting one's father or mother is enough impudence that God deems it as bad as murder. This shows us how God's values are sometimes different from ours. Of course, we would never advocate striking one's father or mother, but neither would we feel comfortable putting someone to death for doing so. Family counseling? Yes. Anger management classes? Sure. Death by stoning? Probably not.

God sees it differently. When He says, "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12), He means it.

Similarly, Exodus 21:17 says, "He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death." What does it mean to curse one's parents? According to traditional Judaism, the passage is not speaking of simply abusive language; it is speaking of a real curse. If a son or daughter uses the holy name of the LORD to utter an intentional curse against one of their parents, that son or daughter is worthy of death. Without a sovereign Torah-court wielding civil authority, the death-penalty no longer applies. No one has been stoned by Torah-law in almost two-thousand years.

The extreme punishment for striking or cursing one's parents teaches the importance that biblical religion places on the integrity and decency of the family. Rebellion, violence and insolence against one's parents, whether physical or verbal, is as much a threat to the fabric of society as murder and kidnapping.

In today's world, society teaches children, particularly teenagers, to disrespect their parents. It is normal to hear teenagers speak to their parents with impertinent and insolent words. It is embarrassing to be around a family where the children are out of order. Children who disrespectfully speak back to their parents are a public disgrace to their family. As a society, we have lost the biblical value of honoring father and mother. The apostle Paul warned that in the last days, a spirit of rebelliousness would be unleashed upon the world. He said that men will be "arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable" (2 Timothy 3:2-3). He advised us to "avoid such men as these" (2 Timothy 3:5).

Paul's recommendation is good child-rearing advice. If you don't want your child to grow up to be disrespectful and mouthy toward you, don't have him socialize with other children who are disrespectful to their parents. It's a serious matter. If you knew that your son's peers were murderers and kidnappers, you would not allow him to be under their influence for even a moment. According to the Bible, children who scorn their parents are just as bad.

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