No way around it. Law is a big deal for us Jews. We are known as much for our law as for our food or humor or patriarchs. For anti-Semites, our “legalism” ranks right up there with our ownership of Hollywood. The very word "Torah" is translated repeatedly (and inadequately) as “the Law.” And indeed, Torah gives us the bulk of what we lawyers might call “statutory law.” On top of that are piled a few thousand years of case law, called halachah, given over in the Talmud, the Shulchan Aruch, and countless rabbinic commentaries.
Our Jewish relationship with law is complex. Many of the laws in our Torah are designed for a people living autonomously in ancient times and therefore have, for most of the time they’ve existed, been inapplicable or impracticable or preempted by the laws of whatever country we’re living in. And yet we still accord them an odd place of honor in our spiritual life. We walk around judging ourselves to be “bad Jews” when we don’t follow some Jewish law that we’re still somehow conversant in. What is it that makes us feel a little something extra about this body of law?
In this week’s parashah, Mishpatim, we get our first installment of the Hebrew Code of Conduct. Yes, last week's portion included the Ten Commandments. But those are broad principles. This week we get the nitty-gritty. God says to Moshe "v’eyleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneyhem" – these are the mishpatim - the laws - that you will place before them (meaning us). And bang. We’re off and running.
What is the punishment if you steal, if you murder, if you accidentally hurt someone, if you mistreat your servant, if your ox gores someone or if you borrow something and damage it? The answers are here. This is our own Code of Hammurabi: a lengthy list of crimes and punishments, torts and penalties, designed to let people live side by side and inflict upon each other as little damage as possible.
Plenty of the rules in Mishpatim seem obvious and unremarkable. Some make us squirm. Here we find the famous "eye for an eye" language, and other surprising harshnesses. We also find a few shocking leniencies.
But then some of the laws come bearing magic. They seem to go beyond mere conduct and get at something deeper or broader or loftier, something that separates them from the Hammurabi kind of fare. Some of these laws reveal a subtle understanding of human nature, and point to a higher ethic floating above the language of the laws.
I’ll give you three examples, involving goats, mobs and your enemy’s sorry ass.
First the goat. The law says: Lo t’vashel g’di b’chalev imo. Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk – the prohibition that eventually gives rise to most of our laws of kashrut. Why such a rule? The baby goat is presumably dead and beyond being offended; we’ve no proof that the mother goat feels either horror or grief or cares about her unwitting collaboration in enabling the evening meal. Despite that, or maybe because of that, the prohibition seems to about something a little bigger, a little higher. Something about who we are to be, rather than how we are to cook. Something about preventing needless suffering, even if you’re not certain that that suffering is more than your own projection. When engaging with the natural world, this rule seems to say, act with chesed – with the divine quality of lovingkindness. While the rule is about goats, the invitation to act out of chesed is so much bigger.
Second example: Lo tihyeh acharei rabim l’raot. Do not follow the majority to do evil. Here there is no specific act being prohibited at all! Rather, there is acknowledgment that peer pressure, the muscle of the majority, the hot breath of the mob can be very hard to resist. The desire to fit in, the fear of standing out, is very strong. So this rule is not about specific actions but specific values. You must give your conscience greater weight than your desire to be liked. No hiding behind a majority vote. No hiding behind the outcome of a bad referendum. You are responsible for your own actions and you must be strong when you are outnumbered. This is a requirement that we act with the divine quality of gevurah – with principle and with strength of purpose.
And finally a particularly interesting and subtle example, the one you’ve been waiting for:
Ki tir'eh chamor son'acha rovetz tachat masa'o, v'chadalta me'azov lo, azov ta'azov imo.
If you see an ass, i.e. a donkey, that belongs to someone who hates you, collapsed under the weight of its load, and you are inclined not to help, you must nonetheless help your enemy get his sorry ass off the floor. [My translation.]
There are a few fascinating elements to this deceptively simple rule, elements that again demonstrate a deep understanding of human nature and offer a gateway to some larger idea.
- You’re under obligation as soon as you see the poor animal. No waiting until it's front of your house or until you trip over it. Even if you only see it from a distance, the rule begins to apply. Here again we see the invitation to chesed. Relieving an animal’s suffering is a compassionate act of transcendent importance.
- The law doesn’t talk about a donkey belonging to someone you hate, but rather belonging to someone who hates you. Why? What’s the difference? Perhaps Torah knows that you are likely to say (and believe) that you don’t hate anyone, even though some people inexplicably hate you. Maybe it’s true; maybe it’s not. But this law applies even if you see yourself as blameless in your conflict with the donkey’s owner. Even if you are blameless, and this person’s hatred is beyond your control, you may not withhold your help. Declining to help your enemies is an indulgence reserved for good times. In hard times that extravagance is not available to you. You must help.
- Another interesting bit comes at the end of the rule. Azov ta’azov imo. You are required to unload the beast’s burdens with its owner. Not instead of its owner. Some commentators say that this is to prevent the exploitation of good Samaritans. “Hey you, come unsaddle my donkey. Torah says so.” No, that is not allowed. Some say it’s because this is simply a two-person job: if you each lift a saddlebag on opposing sides, the animal will be able to stand up by itself. But there’s another possibility too: that Torah understands something here about human nature. Torah knows that if you face an obstacle with someone, you might discover you don't hate each other quite so much as you thought. Torah commands you to love your neighbor, but it can’t force you to. However, Torah can maneuver you into a position where you might naturally arrive at mutual respect.
- The last lovely bit of this rule worthy of mention is that it isn’t triggered by simply seeing the suffering animal. It doesn’t say, “If you see your enemy’s ass lying under its burden, raise it up.” Rather it says “If you see your enemy’s ass lying under its burden v’chadalta me’azov lo – and you would hesitate to help, you must in fact raise it up with him.” The law isn’t just “do the right thing.” It’s “overcome the hesitation that keeps you from doing the right thing.” It presumes you already know what the right thing to do is. We are commanded to connect with the divine quality of gevurah, and with that strength of purpose, overcome our ambivalence, our pettiness, our hatred, our hard place, whatever it is, and unleash the justice and the compassion that are already in our hearts.
I’m walking down the street and see a car stalled with a flat tire. The driver steps out. I recognize him from somewhere. I realize with astonishment that it is Rush Limbaugh. In the silence of my shock, I hear a scuffling sound in the car and step up to look inside. There is Rush’s little kitty cat, which had, just 20 minutes earlier, eaten the notes for Rush’s next radio editorial and is now suffering visibly, heaving and gagging from indigestion. “Hey you, change the tire for me, would you? We’ve gotta get to the vet.” I look at Rush and am so very inclined to do nothing at all. “No,” I reply, “I won’t change the tire for you, but let’s change it together.” Then Rush Limbaugh, the villainous right-winger, and I, the quasi-rabbinical singing drag queen hoist the car on its jack and change the tire. I have acted out of chesed, caring for the plight of the poor, choking animal. I have engaged gevurah, resisting my own small-mindedness, overcoming my inclination to walk away and let this man suffer alongside his pet. I have prevented his hate from turning me into someone who would let an innocent creature suffer out of spite. So whether or not it was pleasant; whether or not Rush suddenly turned progressive, I have created a gateway to tiferet – splendor, the balance point of chesed and gevurah. I have opened a door into this sefirah, which is also called emet, truth, and mishpat – justice. Instead of this law constricting me, it has opened me up to a wider place of great justice, instead of petty judgment. A great justice that sits above and outside my likes and dislikes, outside the world of my own wounds. And that justice feels like splendor.
Now imagine the splendor if it were not me and Rush, but, say, Israelis and Palestinians working together, despite all the accumulated hatred, to save their respective asses. Imagine the splendor in that.
For the Kabbalists, this transcendent aspect of the law was not a bi-product, but rather the point. God’s giving of these laws was not about constricting; about controlling human action with an iron hand. But rather about creating a means of envisioning something bigger and more glorious, making a world that was an expression of divine light and expansiveness.
The Ba’al Shem Tov found a way to locate this expansive, transcendent aspect of the law right in the text itself. Buckle your seatbelt. This is bumpy but worth it.
A little further on in this parashah, God says to the Children of Israel:
Hineh Anochi sholeach mal’ach l’faneycha lishmorcha baderech v’lahaviacha el-haMakom asher hachinoti.
Behold I send before you a mal'ach to guard you on your way and to bring you to the makom – the place I have prepared for you.
On its face, the mal'ach – which means either angel or messenger – is Moshe, leading the Children of Israel through the desert on a divine mission. But the language of placing of an angel before the Children of Israel exactly parallels the opening of the parashah: I am setting mishpatim before you. In the Kabbalistic mind, God’s placing of two things before the people in such close textual proximity creates an equivalency between them. The mishpatim and the mal'ach are the same. These laws are my messenger, these laws are my angel. They guard you and they bring you to the makom – to a new place, or to HaMakom – to God.
The Baal Shem Tov’s followers went to even greater lengths to nail down this equivalence. They noted that the letters of the word mal'ach add up to 91. And so do the letters of HaElohim – God. And so do the letters of two special words added together: YHWH, God’s unutterable name, which adds up to 26, and Adonai, what we say instead of saying God’s name, which adds up to 65. YHWH here represents the inconceivable, unknowable, vastness of God, the Eyn Sof. And Adonai, which is often on our lips and in our hearts, represents the Shechinah, the aspect of the divine that is available to us, the presence of God that we feel in our bodies. So 91 represents a yichud – a mystical joining of God and the Shechinah, of God the vast and God the familiar.
- Yichud of YHWH (26) + Adonai (65) = 91.
- HaElohim = 91.
- Mal'ach = 91.
- Mal'ach before the people = Mishpatim before the people.
- Mishpatim (laws) = Mal'ach = HaElohim = Yichud
This series of associations and numerological equivalencies is a Kabbalistic way of expressing this sense: that the mishpatim we’re given, this code of law, is not to be conceived of as a series of restrictions, but rather as invitations, hints, portals to the great wide spaces of compassion, strength of purpose, and splendor. Of God made whole.
Eyleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneyhem.
These are the gateways to the divine that I place before you. Welcome.