Drash on Parashat Mishpatim (Shekalim)
Rabbi Misha Clebaner
North Shore Temple Emanuel
The Many Evolving Laws of the Torah
This week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim (meaning: laws) takes its name not only from the first major Hebrew word in the reading (as is the custom for each parsha), but it is also a succinct description of what the portion is all about: legislation.
According to the medieval Torah commentator and legal thinker Moses Maimonides and his codification of all the mitzvot (commandments), our parsha comes in 4th out of the 54 Torah portions - coming in with a whopping 51 commandments. Just a few shy of receiving a bronze medal in the mitzvah-giving Olympics.
With so many commandments, they range all the way from the personal (not to curse one’s parents) to the communal (not to insult a convert with words) to the judicial (the court must not kill anybody on circumstantial evidence).
While our ancient Torah has one law, in reality, there are three laws contained within it. This same principle applies to modern Nation states. Perhaps this is why our parsha is called “laws” plural rather than “law” singular. A geological survey of our many-layered laws will find old ones that are no longer relevant and new ones that are forming but have yet to be codified.
These layers can be divided into three categories. Firstly, there is the just law which is timely, relevant, and realistic such as protecting the convert or honouring parents. Secondly, there is the unjust or outdated law such as the Canaanite slave who must work forever as opposed to the Israelite servant who is released after six years. Finally, there is the unenforced law which represents our current ideals but must be recodified in new terms before it becomes fossilised or a relic lost to history, such as the mitzvah that all debts must be forgiven in the seventh year.
While the unspoken assumption about Israelite law is that it was brought down from on-high to be eternally and universally good, Maimonides taught that the law of the Israelites was given for a particular moment in time. Furthermore, in future generations, some of the laws will even be abandoned. Not only is this societal shift to be expected, but it is also a virtuous and positive occurrence.
Maimonides gives the example of the commandment to bring animal sacrifices to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Unlike other Torah commentators that decree the eternal holiness of such a law, Maimonides says that animal sacrifices were only given to satisfy the Israelite’s former pagan ways. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides imagines a future third Temple that will contain the presence of God but will no longer have animal sacrifices. God’s law will be different and perhaps God, too, may change in our eyes. The God of strict justice from the Torah gives way to a God that demands repentance and grants forgiveness in the Talmud.
Just as a company must re-evaluate their budget or a household might do an annual spring cleaning, and each Jew takes stock of their soul on Yom Kippur, so too should our communities regularly look within ourselves and judge whether we are still protecting the vulnerable in a manner that is congruent with our contemporary values and if we are reprimanding those that must be called out despite the new power structures that surround us. As the Talmud says: “the Torah is not in Heaven.” Law does not happen “to us”, rather the power is in our hands to create and shape the kind of world that we want to live in.
Surely, when future generations will look back at this moment they will decry our society as backwards or apathetic to the plight of others. If we look at ourselves now, will we see it differently or is it time for the laws that govern our lives to once again take their next iteration?