Exodus 21:1–24:18; Jeremiah 34:8–22, 33:25–26; Matthew 17:1–11
“These are the ordinances [mishpatim הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים] that you are to set before them.” (Exodus 21:1)
In last week’s Parasha, after the children of Israel had been led out of institutionalized slavery in Egypt—they received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
In this Parasha, Mishpatim, Israel receives the code of civil laws, which are to govern their lives. It opens with the conjunction “and,” which links these civil laws to the Ten Commandments that preceded them.
Those commandments deal with our relationship with God and our relationship with each other.
Judaism is not just about religious practice. We see immediately in Mishpatim that God wants to be involved in our relationships.
The Humane Treatment of Slaves
The presentation of Jewish civil law, which pertains to personal damages, lending, manslaughter, kidnapping, etc., begins with the laws concerning slavery.
God perhaps begins with slavery because slavery had been Israel’s primary national experience. It was etched into the very fabric of their being.
Although slavery and indentured servitude is repulsive to most of us today, at that time, it was a widely accepted practice, and God desired to place in its proper perspective.
In that day, slavery could be beneficial or harmful, depending upon the nation where it was instituted and the character of the slave owner.
Indeed, a slave owner who followed the Torah would be much more considerate of the welfare of their slaves than many employers who dishonor and disrespect their employees, as though they are invaluable and disposable.
This law pertained even to the eved ivri (Hebrew indentured servant) who is working off a debt incurred by theft. It also applied to those who fell into poverty and could not pay their creditors.
Indentured servanthood provided a compassionate form of help.
Having been released from bondage in Egypt, the Israelites were to be especially sensitive to the needs of the slave.
Therefore, God instituted rules of social justice over slavery that protected human dignity and individual rights.
Those rules essentially made the slave owner responsible for the care and well-being of indentured servants.
Furthermore, it limited the length of time someone could be a slave.
All Hebrew slaves were only to serve for six years and then be released in the seventh year.
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” (Exodus 21:2)
Slavery in Haftarah Mishpatim (Prophetic Portion)
“I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’ Your ancestors, however, did not listen to Me.” (Jeremiah 34:13–14)
Haftarah Mishpatim emphasizes the seriousness with which God regards the limits of slavery outlined in the Torah portion, as well as His compassion for the slave.
When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, Israelite slave owners made a pact with King Zedekiah, agreeing to release their Jewish slaves.
One year later, however, when the Babylonians retreated, the slave owners (feeling now safe and secure) set about to forcibly re-enslave those they had previously set free. (Jeremiah 34:8–11)
Because they once again transgressed Parasha Mishpatim’s commandment concerning slavery, Jeremiah prophesied God’s judgment—the complete destruction of Jerusalem.
Following the execution of that judgment, many were carried off as captives to Babylon. Many never returned, although a remnant remained in Judah.
Even so, this destruction is not the end of the story.
This Haftarah concludes with God’s promise to restore the fortunes of the Jewish People and have compassion on them.
“This is what the LORD says: ‘If I have not made My covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.'” (Jeremiah 33:25–26)
Love Your Neighbor
“For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:14)
The laws given in Mishpatim were intended to create within Judaism a profound respect for every human being.
It is told that a 13th century Jewish sage, Hillel, was challenged to sum up the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel responded with ve’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (and you shall love your neighbor as yourself).
Yeshua (Jesus) responded to a similar challenge in like manner:
“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them [Yeshua and the Sadducees] debating. Noticing that Yeshua had given them a good answer, he asked Him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’”
“The most important one,” answered Yeshua, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28–31)
Yeshua emphasized that our primary service in this life is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
If we want to sum up all of the Torah in one word, it would be this: love.
“This one commandment I give unto you—that you love one another.” (John 13:34)
Yeshua did not come to abolish the Torah, but to fulfill it. He came to show us what the Torah is all about and live it out perfectly, without violating a single law. And this He did while emphasizing the Torah’s foundation is love for God and our neighbor.
We can be trying so hard to keep all the rules—all the mishpatim—to the letter and still miss the spirit of the Torah if we are doing it all without love.
The apostle Paul went as far as to say that if we have not love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13).
An Eye for an Eye
One of the best known passages from the Bible is found in this Torah portion: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:23–24)
It has at times been misused by anti-Semites to prove that Jews are a barbaric and vengeful people, but nothing could be further from the truth.
This verse is meant to show that in the execution of justice, the punishment should fit the crime.
Punishments were to be neither too harsh nor too lenient.
Yeshua also shed light on this passage in such a way that showed it was not to be used as grounds for personal revenge and retribution on our enemies:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.… love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you. That you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38–45)
Yeshua wasn’t changing God’s Torah.
He understood that the mishpatim not only shine a light on how we are to conduct ourselves, they shine a light on our heart and our motives.
Our mindset should not be one of keeping score and getting revenge.
While justice is to be pursued, we are also to love those who have wronged us by praying that they be released from bondage to sin and by asking God to touch their spirits with the knowledge of Him.
God, our Father in Heaven, has treated us in the same way by blessing us with His Son, Yeshua, even though we were living in rebellion to Him.
“But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Messiah died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
The Sabbath Is for Refreshing
One of the ordinances in Mishpatim is the seventh day Sabbath:
“Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed [vayinafesh (וינפש)].” (Exodus 23:12)
The Sabbath was given for everyone as a day of refreshing—for the Jew, the foreigner living among the Jewish People, and yes, even the servants and slaves.
The Hebrew word for refreshed is vayinafesh, which comes from nefesh (נפש), meaning breath, or breathed upon. It also means soul.
“The Lord is my shepherd…. He restores my soul [nefesh].” (Psalm 23:1–3)
When God breathed upon Adam in the Garden of Eden, he became a living soul (nefesh chaya).
God gives us Shabbat to remind us that we have a soul—a nefesh—that also needs care and attention. Time needs to be set aside to refresh it every week.
Going Through the Motions
Have you ever felt like you were just going through the motions—existing, surviving, but not really living?
We can be walking, breathing, shopping, working, cleaning, taking care of the kids, doing all the things we do, but we don’t feel alive when we lose sight of life’s purpose or our passion.
We are not just physical beings; we are also emotional, mental and spiritual. It takes a harmony of all these aspects of our being to feel truly satisfied and complete.
God has given us the Sabbath (Shabbat) to stop all our mundane, daily activities and rest, in order that not just our bodies but our souls would be refreshed.
Yeshua came to give us an abundant life—far and above and beyond mere basic existence. It takes the breath of God to breathe life into us so that we may really come to life—filled to overflowing with His Spirit.
When we neglect our soul, when we fail to drink of the living waters of His Spirit, we become hard, bitter, judgmental, and difficult to get along with.
We need to spend time with God getting to know Him and developing an intimate relationship with Him so that we can reach our full potential—to our Father’s glory.
We need to drink and eat on a daily basis, but on Shabbat we feast!
We have a whole day to spend with God, really getting to know Him, allowing Him to refresh our soul.
Drawing Close to God Is More Than Keeping Rules
Walking with God is about so much more than “rule keeping”; it is about knowing Him.
And we can all know God.
The prophet Jeremiah foretold a New Covenant where ALL will know God, from the least to the greatest.
Whether we are male or female, Jew or Gentile, young or old, through the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant), which was sealed in the blood of Yeshua, we can all have free access to God.
In this Parasha, Moses ratified the Old Covenant laws by sprinkling blood on the two contractual parties: half on the people of Israel and half on the altar that represented God. (Exodus 24:6–8)
All the covenants were sealed in blood; and when Yeshua shed His blood on the Roman execution stake, He entered the most Holy Place, not with the blood of bulls and goats but with His own precious blood. (Hebrews 9:18–22)
When He died, the veil separating the people from the Most Holy Place was torn from top to bottom. (Mark 15:28; Matthew 27:51; Luke 23:45)
Since this act is similar to the way a grieving Jewish person tears their garments, this could have been an expression of the Father’s grief over the death of Yeshua. The result, however, is that we can now come boldly to the Throne of God all by ourselves to find help and grace in time of need.
Are we taking advantage of this privilege?
God is the same today, yesterday, and forever. If we no longer feel close to Him, then perhaps it is we who have moved away. But God is waiting and yearning for us to draw near to Him. Could there be any better moment than now to draw near and be refreshed?