The Family Drama Hiding In The Laws
How Can The Laws Of Mishpatim Help Correct Past Mistakes?
After the riveting stories of the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai, parshat Mishpatim hits us like a ton of bricks. It's got law after law about nitty gritty things like property damages and personal injuries. It's hard to relate to these dry, legal lists when they're put side by side with the Torah's most epic and memorable stories.
But what if the laws aren't merely what they appear to be? What if these laws have something to tell us, a secret about one of the Torah's most familiar stories? Join Ami as he explores the stories hiding within these laws.
Hi, I’m Ami Silver. Welcome to Aleph Beta, this is Parshat Mishpatim.
Mishpatim might be the most anticlimactic parsha in the Torah. We’ve just finished reading about the Exodus from Egypt with all its signs and wonders, and the majestic revelation at Sinai. But then – right after – we hit Mishpatim, and it's law after law about damages, injuries, fines and punishments. It’s as if God is saying, “Alright kids, storytime is over! Now that I have your attention, here’s what the Torah is really about: Laws!
What Is the Meaning Behind the Laws of Mishpatim?But if we scratch beneath the surface and read these laws more closely, there’s a whole lot more going on than meets the eye. To show you what I mean, I want to look at a little group of laws with you, just one section, and see what we notice. Okay, here we go. It starts off:
- ומכה אביו ואמו מות יומת – if someone strikes their father or mother, they shall be put to death.
- וגנב איש ומכרו ונמצא בידו. And if someone kidnaps another person and sells them, and they’re found guilty – מות יומת – they too get the death penalty. Then:
- ומקלל אביו ואמו – if someone curses their parents – מות יומת – they’re also put to death.
Okay, let’s stop right here for a second and play a little game that we at Aleph Beta call “which of these things is not like the other?” We’ve got a verse about hitting parents. Then a verse about kidnapping; and then a verse about cursing parents. So which one doesn’t fit? If you said kidnapping, you’ve got it! It seems entirely out of place. It’s stuck in between two verses about parents. It totally breaks the flow. Why didn’t the Torah just teach us the laws about hitting parents and cursing parents, and then move on to tell us about kidnapping? So that’s our first question. And let’s just file it away for now, and we’ll come back to it after we see a bit more of this section of laws.
The verses continue with more laws about people hurting each other – some guys who are fighting, someone who hits their servant. And then we get to the following scenario: וכי ינצו אנשים ונגפו אשה הרה – some men are fighting and they inadvertently hit a pregnant woman – ויצאו ילדיה – as a result, she has a miscarriage. So what’s the punishment for that? Well, it depends: ולא יהיה אסון – if the assault causes a miscarriage, but doesn’t kill the woman herself, the men are punished with a fine in court. However – ואם אסון יהיה – if the woman also dies – ונתתה נפש תחת נפש – you shall give a soul in exchange for a soul.
Now, there are some strange things going on here. Let’s start with that last line, a soul for a soul. It’s become a somewhat famous phrase about Biblical punishment, but what does it mean? Is it just a poetic way of saying, “off with their heads”? Well, it doesn’t seem so. Because, throughout these verses we keep hearing about the death penalty, but each time the Torah uses the words מות יומת, the person shall be put to death. So נפש תחת נפש – a soul for a soul – seems to be saying something else, but what?
And on the topic of strange language, look at how the Torah describes the death of the mother: אם אסון יהיה – literally, if a tragedy takes place. The Torah could have said that as a result of the miscarriage, the pregnant woman might die – אִם תמות; or she may be killed – אִם תהרג. But instead it uses this ambiguous phrase – a tragedy, an asson – which is a really unusual word in the Torah. It’s so rare, in fact, that it only appears in one other place in the entire Torah. Where is the other place asson pops up?
Biblical Connections to Mishpatim LawWell, the only other mention of asson is actually in the story of Joseph and his brothers, in the epic speech Judah gave, right before Joseph revealed his true identity to them. Posing as a merciless Egyptian official, Joseph was threatening to keep Benjamin as his prisoner for stealing his cup. Judah was horrified about what this would do to their father, Jacob, and he begged Joseph to reconsider. He repeated his father’s fears of sending Benjamin down to Egypt. Jacob had told them: וקרהו אסון – if Benjamin suffers an asson –והורדתם את שיבתי ברעה שאלה – I will go down to my grave in misery.
So you might say, “big deal! Asson here, asson there. That doesn’t tell us anything. They’re both tragic stories, so that’s the word that’s used.” And if this were all that’s here, I’d agree with you. But here’s the thing. If we read these texts side by side, Judah’s speech about Jacob and Benjamin, and those verses about the pregnant woman in Mishpatim, there are a lot more connections between them. Asson is just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a look.
When Judah was pleading with Joseph to free Benjamin, he recounted the entire conversation between Jacob and the brothers before they left for Egypt. Jacob said:אתם ידעתם כי שנים ילדה לי אשתי – you know that my wife, Rachel, bore me two sons – Joseph and Benjamin. ויצא האחד מאתי – and I’ve lost one of them. Those words yatzah me’iti are a bit odd. Literally, they mean that one child “came out of me.” These words actually have very specific connotation, which comes up in the verses we saw back in Mishpatim. The pregnant woman is hit, ויצאו ילדיה – and her children come out of her. This is how the Torah describes a miscarriage; and strangely, it’s the same way Jacob talks about losing Joseph! Why would that be?
And it gets even stranger. Because if we think about those words in Mishpatim – יצאו ילדיה – it means that the woman “loses her children” – in the plural! Why would the Torah speak about a miscarriage this way? How often is a pregnant woman carrying more than one fetus? It doesn’t make sense. But oddly, it does mirror Jacob’s words. He said: “Rachel bore me two sons. I’ve lost one of them; now, I might lose the second one too.”
The parallels continue. The next thing Jacob said: וקרהו אסון – what if Benjamin suffers an asson? As we said, it’s the same this tragedy that may befall the mother in Mishpatim. If that happens, Judah says – ונפשו קשורה בנפשו – Jacob’s soul is bound up with Benjamin’s soul. והיה כראותו כי אין הנער ומת – if Jacob loses Benjamin, he’s going to die too. Nafsho keshura benafsho… it’s eerily similar to the end of those verses in Mishpatim – nefesh tachat nafesh, one soul for the other – which is also a consequence of an asson taking place.
And now that we’ve seen all this, let’s go back to that verse we were wondering about before, גנב איש ומכרו – someone who kidnaps a person, and then sells them. Well… what does that remind us of?
Do the Parallels to Mishpatim Law Continue?It sure sounds a lot like what happened to Joseph. The brothers took him from his father, threw him into a pit, and sold him as a slave. So for some inexplicable reason, this little section of laws in Mishpatim has echoes of both the beginning and end of the struggle between Joseph and his brothers; from the kidnapping and sale of Joseph, all the way to Judah’s speech that ultimately brought the brothers and Joseph back together again. But why are these parallels here? What could these laws about injuries and damages possibly have to do with Joseph and his brothers?
I think that these parallels may actually be touching on something at the very core of the entire Joseph story. You see, if you were to ask most people, “why did the brothers hate Joseph?” they’d say, that’s easy: “because he was Jacob’s favorite son, he had a special coat, he was a bit of a tattletale, and he had these dreams about ruling over his brothers. But...it’s actually not so simple. You see, the roots of the brothers’ hatred, that caused them to kidnap and sell Joseph as a slave, it actually began way before any of this – before Joseph’s dreams, before Jacob gave him that special coat, even before any of them was born. It began with Jacob’s love for Rachel. Rachel was Jacob’s beloved wife, and Joseph was her firstborn son. That’s why Jacob loved him; and it’s the reason the brothers hated him. It wasn’t just about Joseph. It was about the way Jacob favored one mother over the other, and how, in turn, he favored one set of children over the others. And Joseph bore the brunt of all of that.
Now come back to Mishpatim. We find these laws about kidnapping and selling someone – laws that remind us of the Sale of Joseph – lumped together with laws about hitting and cursing parents.
The Backstory Behind the Laws of MishpatimMaybe those laws aren’t misplaced after all. Maybe they’re grouped together to show us the context – the backstory – of the whole struggle between Joseph and his brothers. The brothers kidnapped and sold Joseph, but they just as easily could have hit or cursed their parents. Because when it comes down to it, they were the real source of all this anger and jealousy. But the brother’s didn’t acknowledge that. All they saw was little Joseph prancing around with his coat and his dreams, and they took it all out on him. But their anger was misguided. The cause of all it came from their parents.
Now, that’s not to say the brothers should have attacked their parents. It’s not like everything would have been hunky dory if they had just hit and cursed mom and dad instead of poor Joseph. But I do think this is showing us what the real issue was. The real problem was an inequality in the love between the parents, which trickled down to the next generation. But nobody addressed that issue – and everybody suffered because of it.
Just imagine how things would have played out differently if Jacob, his children and his wives had gone for some good old family therapy. If they all got in a room together and talked it out. Joseph, do you realize what it’s like to see you walking around in that coat? Dad, why did you always love Rachel more than our mother? Do you know how that makes us feel? The brothers may have realized that their anger wasn’t about their little brother after all, and the entire sale of Joseph may have never taken place. But that didn’t happen; and it took years of anguish and suffering before they could come around and make amends.
I think that now, we can also understand the parallels we see later in the same section of laws, between Judah’s speech and the woman who suffers miscarriage. Because what’s going on there, is that some men are fighting. But who do they hurt? They hurt a mother, a mother carrying children. Well, once upon a time, some men were fighting. Ten men launched an attack against their brother. But beneath it all, they were attacking his mother, they were lashing out at Rachel.
And this seems to be how Jacob experienced it. Because as far as Jacob is concerned, losing Joseph was a miscarriage. He didn’t just lose his son; he lost Rachel’s son. What pained him and plagued him for all of those years was the loss of the mother’s child. And so when he thinks back to that terrible loss, he says, yatzah me’iti, he speaks about it like a miscarriage. Then, when he’s facing the risk of losing Benjamin, Rachel’s second son, he calls it an asson, the word reserved for a mother’s death. Because even though Rachel had already been dead for years, as long as Benjamin was alive, Jacob still had a vestige of her in his life. But losing Benjamin would mean losing his final link to Rachel. She’d be gone forever. That’s the tragedy he fears. And, it would be so devastating that if it happened, Jacob could not go on living. Nafsho keshura benafsho. Jacob’s attachment to Benjamin would result in nefesh tachat nafesh – one soul lost on account of the other.
Understanding Mishpatim Law in a Modern ContextSomething we’ve noticed time and time again at Aleph Beta is that the stories of the Torah become laws. That oftentimes, the most painful and difficult experiences of the past show up later in legal terms. As if within the Torah’s laws, there’s a commentary on those earlier stories, showing us where things went wrong, and how to repair mistakes of the past.
When we see the laws and the stories interacting this way, all of sudden, it becomes very real. The Torah isn’t just spinning ancient legal theory, or telling stories about characters that lived long ago. The stories and laws are speaking to complex, human experiences; the same kinds of things that you and I run into in our own relationships. We face these same pitfalls, we also cause damage when we’re blinded by feelings of anger or jealousy, and fail to discern the real cause of those feelings. By giving legal structures to these stories, the Torah is giving us both a warning and a salve. It’s showing us where our ancestors went wrong, and how we can avoid repeating those same mistakes. And, if the damage has already been done, it’s showing us ways we may still be able to repair it.
I hope you enjoyed this video. The truth is, the links to the Joseph story we saw here are just scratching the surface. There are many more Joseph references scattered throughout the laws in Mishpatim. Check out the epilogue to this video to get the inside look. And, as always, please share your thoughts in the comments section!