Interpreting the Ten Commandments: Mishpatim...The Sequel? | Aleph Beta

Mishpatim: The Ten Commandments… The Sequel?

Mishpatim: The Ten Commandments…The Sequel?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

This week, Imu guides Rabbi Fohrman into the myriad of laws of Mishpatim. He points out some subtle connections – both in theme, and in language – between these laws and the Ten Commandments, which we just heard last week, and asks, why? Why is there a replay of the Ten Commandments?


Imu Shalev: Hello and welcome back to another amazing episode of Parsha Lab. This week's parsha is Parshat Mishpatim and I am Imu Shalev.

Rabbi Fohrman: And I am Rabbi Fohrman, reminding you that whether it's amazing or not is yet to be seen, Imu. What do you have in store for us?

A Commentary on the Ten Commandments... in Mishpatim?

Imu Shalev: Well, let's make it amazing. What I would like to do with you today, Rabbi Fohrman, is explore a little bit of an idea that David Block and I developed in Parsha Experiment. And the idea is as follows.

Rabbi Fohrman: Let me just interrupt for a second before you get to the idea. When Imu says Parsha Experiment, what he's actually referring to is our third year of parsha on Aleph Beta. You can find videos. I did the first two years. Imu and David Block did a third year which is a little bit different where what they were focusing on was trying to understand the larger story, the larger narrative of the Torah because if you're not careful, it just looks like a bunch of disconnected vignettes and then some laws thrown in.

And they really, kind of, embarked on an ambitious quest to see how it all ties together. One of the really wonderful things about listening to Parsha Experiment is that you get kind of a theory about how the Five Books of Moses ultimately hang together to form a large epic story.

Imu Shalev: Thanks for the introduction, Rabbi Fohrman. I think that Parshat Mishpatim is actually a really key moment in our Parsha Experiment theory of seeing the larger storyline of the Torah because this is the first real parsha where the storyline is interrupted. Way back in Parshat Bo there's some interruption of laws around the Passover offering during Passover time, but really there's no major parsha that is entirely a section of laws.

Up until now from Bereishit all the way through Yitro, the giving of the Torah, we get the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt and then bam, right after Matan Torah you get laws. Long, boring laws. You get laws about slaves. You get laws about killing people. You get laws about hitting people. You get laws about stealing.

So let me ask you a question, Rabbi Fohrman. I just mentioned to you that we have laws about killing people. We've got laws about stealing. We've got laws about cursing your father and mother. Does that remind you of anything?

How Do Laws Expand Our Interpretation of the Ten Commandments?

Rabbi Fohrman: So if you take those three examples, you've got laws about stealing, you've got laws about killing and you've got laws about cursing father and mother. We're in Parshat Mishpatim. If I play where have I kind of heard all that before? Going back to Parshat Yitro, the very last parsha, we had the Ten Commandments where father and mother played a very important role, Commandment Number 5, honoring your father and mother. Where killing played a very important role in the next commandment, do not kill. Where do not steal played a very important role. Are we getting some sort of reprise, I suppose you might say, of the Ten Commandments in Parshat Mishpatim?

Imu Shalev: Maybe we are and that might be a way of seeing Parshat Mishpatim, somehow might be an extension of the Ten Commandments. How exactly, we'll have to wait and see. But before we go there, maybe you think this is all just a coincidence. You know, killing, stealing, cursing father and mother that's a little bit random. Maybe this isn't a pattern. So I want to take you someplace else.

Right in the beginning of this parsha, you have the laws of slavery. And slavery doesn't really feel like it's out in the Ten Commandments, but let me read this law with you and see if it reminds you of anything, Rabbi Fohrman. "Ki tikneh eved Ivri sheish shanim ya'avod u'vashvi'it yeitzei lachofshi chinam." So when a slave works for six years, he should work, and in the seventh, he gets to go free. Does that remind you of anything, Rabbi Fohrman?

Rabbi Fohrman: So yes. When you put that emphasis in there on six years you should work and the seventh year you sort of go free, it sure evokes the kind of six and seven in the Ten Commandments, which of course is the Sabbath. And the ideas are the same because it's in the Sabbath, six days you work, work, work, almost like a slave, and in the seventh you rest. And here for slaves, six years you work, work, work, really like a slave and in the seventh, you really rest because you get to be free. So there does seem to be that kind of resonance not just in the concepts, but even in the language of the text.

So let me ask you a question, Imu. You said if it's a real pattern, it should go further. You've given me now four instances of the pattern, killing, stealing, mothers and fathers and these slaves that go for six years and seven years. Four resonances within the Ten Commandments. Give me something else. If it's a pattern, there were 10 of those Ten Commandments. Give me another one.

Imu Shalev: Sure. Way down in 23:24 "lo tishtachaveh leiloheihem v'lo ta'avdeim v'lo ta'aseh k'ma'aseihem" do not bow down to foreign gods, do not serve them, do not do as they do "ki hareis taharseim v'shaber t'shaber matzeivotam" you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars into pieces.

Rabbi Fohrman: Well that sure sounds a lot like the laws against idolatry in the Ten Commandments even in the language. "Lo tishtachaveh lahem" was the language in the Ten Commandments. You shall not bow to them. Over here "lo tishtachaveh leiloheihem" you shall not bow to their gods. You know, a pretty clear echo. So Imu, chalk up another one for you. There's five. Give me another one. Give me one more.

Imu Shalev: Let me take you to a really interesting one and you'll see why in a minute. Come to Sh'mot 23:1. "Lo tisa sheima shav al tashet yadcha im rasha li'h'yot eid chamas." So this one is somehow about bearing a false report and do not join with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Does that remind you of anything?

Rabbi Fohrman: Right, but the confusing thing is that it's reminding me of two things. You can play psychotherapist over here while I bare my soul about my confusion here. Because on the one hand the idea here if you just translate the word "lo tisa sheima shav" you shall not bear a false report, really sounds very similar to the idea in the Ten Commandments of you shall not bear false witness. Which is commandment, if I'm not mistaken, Number 9, which is don't lie about somebody in court.

The problem is that that's if you compare the ideas. But if you compare the words, the words are taking me to another resonance in the Ten Commandments, almost like word play, which is commandment, I guess, Number 3 which is do not take God's name in vain. "Lo tisa sheima shav" and listen to how the words are so similar "lo tisa et shem Hashem Elokecha lashav" is the Hebrew for you shall not take God's name in vain. The first words lo tisa exactly the same. Even the word for sheima, report, is a play, seemingly, off of the word sheim in the Ten Commandments. Don't take God's name in vain. Here don't take a report that's false. And shav, of course, the word for false or unnecessary or vain is exactly the same. It's an unusual Hebrew word.

I guess my confusion, Mr. Therapist, is that I seem to be hearing two resonances at the same time. Part of my brain, when I listen to these words, is being taken to Number 9 in the Ten Commandments, do not bear a false witness against someone. And part of my brain is being taken to Number 3 in the Ten Commandments, do not take God's name in vain. So I'm confused.

Imu Shalev: And what do you make of that, Rabbi Fohrman?

Rabbi Fohrman: Like a good therapist, what do you make of that?

Imu Shalev: Like a good Jewish therapist.

Rabbi Fohrman: Let the light bulb solve its own problem. The light bulb should be able to screw it in. Why am I paying you $300 an hour, Imu therapist, to tell me to solve my own problems? Fine. I'll take a crack at it.

Deepening Our Interpretation of the Ten Commandments

Rabbi Fohrman: It feels like maybe there's a kind of richness here and if you think about – pull back the zoom lens into one of the takeaways as what it is you're doing here – why are we playing this game? It's not just a little game, like, oh, look, it's the Ten Commandments. I bet you can find the Ten Commandments in Parshat Mishpatim. There's actually a meaning to this madness.

And the meaning to the madness is that if this is a story then these laws are more than just laws. It's not just that we're getting a bunch of legal things happening here with legal implications. There are legal implications for these laws, but there's also narrative implications. There's also an ethical thing which is flowing through here.

What you're seeing here is something mind boggling, if it's really true, which is a kind of intertextual overlay between elements of Mishpatim and the Ten Commandments. For those of you who have been on Aleph Beta, kind of around the block there, we have a series on Aleph Beta called "The Hidden Structure Of The Ten Commandments," which is where we look at the two sides of the Ten Commandments and how they sort of explain one another.

What Imu and David were suggesting here in Parsha Experiment and kind of filling me in now, is this notion that there's another overlay in the Ten Commandments. In addition to that there is all of Parshat Mishpatim that's kind of acting as an overlay to the Ten Commandments almost in an explanatory kind of way.

What you have here, if you would ask me to explain what's happening with this verse with the double resonance, is you have one idea in the Ten Commandments that's resonating with two different laws, almost suggesting that there's some kind of connection between three and nine in the Ten Commandments.

As if somehow, maybe I'll kick the football back to you Imu, that there's something about do not lie about someone in court which is resonating in a way with not taking God's name in vain. That even though those seem to be two very different things, maybe this verse is telling us that in some way they're connected.

Imu Shalev: Yeah. I think what's happening, and I like the way you phrased it, is that there's a larger value here behind each of the Ten Commandments. They're not just individual laws, but that they express themselves in multiple ways and in some ways that you might see as unlikely.

So a law that you can see as dry as don't use the Lord's name in vain could perhaps be something more like you should make sure to respect God and His reputation, because name can sometimes not just mean name but also reputation. And therefore you should respect the name and reputation of God's children as well.

Rabbi Fohrman: Interesting.

Imu Shalev: As I believe – go ahead.

Expanding the Commentary of the Commandments

Rabbi Fohrman: No, it's interesting. In other words, what you're seemingly kind of saying is I hear sort of two interesting resonances here. On the one hand, there's a common denominator between God and people. God is Big Creator with a capital C and we're little creators, we're tzelem Elokim, we're in the image of God and if you're going to respect God's name, you have to respect people's name also.

But there's also kind of double entendre in name. And what you're suggesting is that even though the legal expression of these principles is that you shall not take God's name in vain and that means something legally. But there's a broader ethical meaning here also which is that name has other implications.

The same way that I say you're impugning my good name, you don't mean you're impugning my name Fohrman or my name Shalev. It means you're impugning my reputation. And the Torah is kind of creating a blending of ideas here between taking God's literal name in vain and impugning someone's reputation and saying there's kind of a commonality there. A name is the way we express ourselves in the world and we have to be careful with people's names because people are special in a little tiny way, the kind of way that God Himself is special.

Imu Shalev: Rabbi Fohrman, do you think that there's anything to the fact that the Torah here chose to root this law, which seems to be between man and fellow man in something, instead of rooting it in one of the Ten Commandment laws that it could have "lo ta'aneh b'rei'acha eid sheker" don't bear false witness, it's choosing to root it in this law of "lo tisa et shem Hashem lashav"? Why do you think the Torah is doing that? What's the moral implication of that?

Rabbi Fohrman: That's fascinating. It reminds me in a way almost of that other law in the Torah that you can't leave a corpse hanging. A corpse of someone who's killed, you can't leave that hanging overnight even if it was stoned or done legally by virtue of the court because to do so is to blaspheme God Himself.

The meforshim, the commentators struggle with that and they see this kind of commonality between humans and God and that inasmuch as a person is b'tzelem Elokim, is created in the image of God, to deface or to degrade a human by making him a laughing stock. The corpse being hung out for people to jeer at is a desecration of God's name Himself.

You see sort of the resonances, maybe, of that here which is that to lie about someone in court, if you think you can get away with that, the ultimate, ethical reason why you can't is that to do so is in some little way to partake of a desecration of God's name. That people who are little images of God walking around and if you impugn their reputations, it's like God feels it as if it's taking His name. It's almost as if God feels a kind of fellowship with humankind, with those who are thereby impugned and sees it as an attack on His name. Again, that commonality between name and reputation.

Imu Shalev: Wow. That's very powerful and inspiring and feels like so much more than just simple laws. It feels like there's real values here and maybe even a conversation between commandments and laws. I want to take you someplace else that I think might also be really interesting. Come with me to Sh'mot 22:21.

Rabbi Fohrman: Okay, 22:21. I am with you.

Imu Shalev: "Kol almanah v'yatom lo t'anun" do not oppress the orphan and the widow. Now orphans and widows are not in the Ten Commandments. But does this word remind you of anything?

Rabbi Fohrman: But "lo t'anun" is in the Ten Commandments, specifically again at the... it's actually the last commandment which we talked about which is "lo ta'aneh b'rei'acha eid sheker" is the Hebrew for do not bear false witness against your fellow. Again "lo ta'aneh" seems to be becoming "lo t'anun" now.

Here also again it's a word play because "lo ta'aneh b'rei'acha eid sheker" seems to mean, literally, "lo ta'aneh" in the sense of answer. Do not answer or do not testify falsely about someone and here "lo t'anun" is a word play, but the t'anun is now going to be probably in the pi'el (intensive-active) form and it's going to mean oppress so you shall not oppress the widow and orphan.

But the word play is there which perhaps does evoke the Ten Commandments leading me to question, Imu, why would oppressing a widow and an orphan be related or a subcategory in some way of "lo ta'aneh b'rei'acha eid sheker"? Is it because who would you take advantage of in false testimony? You might take advantage of those who are less powerful than you.

Imu Shalev: That's exactly where I would go with it.

Rabbi Fohrman: Go ahead.

Imu Shalev: No, no. That's exactly where I would go with it. Expand. I reached this conclusion. I'm curious to watch you reach the conclusion and see how you would phrase it. So go forward.

Interpreting a Modern Commentary of the Ten Commandments

Rabbi Fohrman: Right. The idea is like who are you going to bear false testimony against? Here it's like a power play. It's a power structure. It's, like, I'm not going to bear false testimony against my boss who can fire me, who can slam me. That's too dangerous. But if I can make a few bucks or if life is a little better for me by taking advantage with those who don't have the reputation to challenge me.

And if you even think about modern day, you know the #MeToo movement and all that. It's interesting that a lot of the... if you think about the kind of oppression and that's really what we're talking about here "kol almanah v'yatom lo t'anun" to oppress the widow and orphan. Oppression is something that happens to the weak specifically because they aren't believed when they challenge the rich and famous.

So if you're famous, if you're a star, they let you do it. Or if they don't let you do it, if you're famous and you're a star, they won't believe you if you complain. Unless many, many, many people complain and then you have a chance. So the Torah is saying don't take advantage of the power dynamic in which you find yourself in a powerful place to be able to oppress others by lying about them. Don't do that.

So it's almost, again, coming back to that idea which we're talking about before. I see what you're saying. That the resonances of the Ten Commandments in Mishpatim may be lending a kind of richness to what, at least some of what the Torah has in mind in the idea behind the Ten Commandments, which is that there's a power play, an illegitimate power play being suggested in false testimony.

Imu Shalev: Yeah. And to riff off of what you said or maybe expand it or take it a slightly different direction, what is the purpose of the command of "lo ta'aneh b'rei'acha eid sheker"? I mean, yes, don't lie on the witness stand. But is that really such a big law that it should make it into the top ten laws in the Ten Commandments?

Rabbi Fohrman: I hear what you're saying.

Imu Shalev: And it could be that that law is a principle and it's a principle to have integrity in your justice system. Because what is the purpose of a justice system? You know who doesn't need the justice system? The rich and powerful. They don't need a justice system because they can see to their own justice and they can get what they want. But what the justice system does is it equalizes society and makes riches and power not really matter in the eyes of the law.

In the eyes of the law, when there is iniquity and injustice done, people who need justice the most are the widow and the orphan. Then the justice system will have integrity or else you will be oppressing people and the people who are going to be paying for the oppression for a broken justice system are the people who are the most vulnerable.

Rabbi Fohrman: So if I understand you correctly, the point here is that society in the state of nature, I know this includes rich people and poor people, by nature rich people are in the position that they could take advantage of the poor. Along comes society in the form of law, in the form of court systems, in an attempt to rectify that injustice and establish a level playing field, enter the court system.

Comes along the Torah and says don't corrupt the very institution whose purpose is there to equalize the playing field by turning that into another form of oppression, by just making that another tool, by making that another thing that you can use as a sledgehammer to hammer the poor with, that you get up on the witness stand and use the justice system as a tool of oppression. That's the "lo t'anun" of the "almanah v'yatom" together with the "lo ta'aneh b'rei'acha eid sheker" which is that the ultimate evil; which is it's bad enough to oppress the widow and the orphan, it's worse to take the very societal institution that's supposed to protect them and to use that as the tool of your oppression.

Imu Shalev: Exactly. I think that's very powerful the way you just phrased it and I think: what's to stop the rich from abusing their privilege and from becoming an eid sheker and oppressing the orphan and the widow?

The very next verse is really, really inspiring. It says "im aneh ta'aneh oto" if you choose to oppress him "ki im tza'ok yitz'ak eilai shamo'a eshma tza'akato," he'll cry out and if the justice system no longer has integrity and cannot correct the imbalance, I will hear him. That's a pretty good guarantee.

Rabbi Fohrman: In other words, there is a, well, if you get back to the notion of a justice system, what it's suggesting is that there's a second justice system. There's heavenly justice and that God is the Ultimate Judge.

So if you put it in terms of the way that we're talking about it's almost as if there's four layers. Layer Number 1, the state of nature. In the state of nature, there's some people who are rich, there's some people who are poor. There's a temptation of the rich to use their power to oppress the poor. Along comes the justice system that attempts to rectify that.

If the justice system itself becomes corrupted when those in power use it as the tool through which to continue oppression of the poor then, so to speak, the law naturally rises to the Supreme Court, as it were, to a system that's not broken, to a heavenly justice system and it falls to God to exact justice.

At that point, God is exacting justice which if you go really to the next verse, Imu, is that sort of sense which is that there's a heavenly, not just a heavenly punishment, not just that God gets mad, but a heavenly justice because the earthly justice didn't work. "V'charah api v'haragti etchem becharev v'hayu n'sheichem almanot uv'neichem y'tomim." If the people you take advantage of, the widows and orphans, then I will end up killing people and making widows and orphans of the people who oppressed the widows and orphans. And it's sort of a heavenly midah k'neged midah (measure for measure) system which we identify with justice, but not earthly justice, a kind of heavenly justice. The Supreme Court, so to speak, has spoken.

Imu Shalev: So I think all this is really breathtaking. I think there's so much more amazing work to do in Parshat Mishpatim and I think we're out of time. I would love to challenge all of you. I personally have found nine out of 10 of the Ten Commandments all throughout this parsha. There's one missing.

I'm not the first one to notice that missing one. I believe Nachmanides who also sees Ten Commandments connections here also sees the one that I'm seeing is missing, is missing. But if you want to hunt for it and email us the missing commandment or if you want to show us the places that you found Ten Commandments applications, we'd love to hear your thoughts:

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