When you start to study Talmud, the classic text of Jewish Law, the first thing you need to learn is how to think like a Talmud scholar. The logic of the Talmud is explained by the following story.
Two men fall down a chimney. One emerges with a dirty face and one emerges with a clean face. Which one washes his face? Now if you are a reasonable normal person, the answer to the question is really quite simple. A person with a dirty face will want to wash it clean. Therefore, the one with a dirty face washes and the one with a clean face will not wash.
But there is another way to answer the question. If two men fall down a chimney. One emerges with a dirty face and one emerges with a clean face. Which one washes his face? If you are a very clever person, you see the trick in the question. The person who has a dirty face looks at the person with a clean face and thinks his face is clean and so he does not wash. The person with a clean face looks at the person with a dirty face, assumes that his face is also dirty, so he washes his face. It is all pretty clever.
But that is not how the Talmud works at all. When it comes to the problem: Two men fall down a chimney. One emerges with a dirty face and one emerges with a clean face. Which one washes his face? A Talmud scholar replies, “How is it possible for two people to fall down a chimney and one has a clean face and one has a dirty face? How is that possible?
This is called, looking for the question that lies behind the question. Since the Torah is quoting God when it comes to its Mitzvot and laws, sometimes it is hard to know what is behind the requirements that God places on us. That is why the Torah can be read each week and finished at the end of the year, but the Talmud takes many years to get through its questions and how it understands the Torah text.
Parshat Mishpatim is all about laws. The Ten Commandments turn out to just be the preamble to the larger corpus of laws that will be needed to guide the Israelites as they cross the desert, settle in the Promised Land and establish their nation among the other nations of the world.
Some of these laws make good sense to us modern people. Laws that require respect for parent and teachers; laws that provide restitution when we hurt another person or damage their property. There are laws that establish when we are responsible for the damage our animals do to others and when we are not responsible. How is Israelite society to deal with a thief, or a sexual assault, someone who takes advantage of an orphan, a widow or a stranger? God teaches that if we find something that belongs to someone else, we must return it. There is no concept of “finder’s keeper’s”. We are required to tell the truth, help a neighbor even if we don’t like her very much. These are all laws that we can easily recognize as necessary if we are to establish a good society.
But Mishpatim has other laws that we are not so happy with. There are many laws about how to treat slaves. We think that slavery is always wrong, no matter how kind the owner might be to the slave. We see the death penalty for a wide range of offenses and yet why should people be put to death for their crimes? Prison surely and restitution is also important but why should we seek the death of another person? Also, this “eye for eye” thing. How can you compare the eye of a surgeon, or a jeweler to the eye of a common criminal? Do we really want to cut off the hand of someone who causes the disfigurement of someone else? How will that bring justice?
And finally, there are laws in Mishpatim that are just not useable anymore. What are we to make of animal sacrifice? Would we want to start up the sacrificial system again in a third Temple of Jerusalem? Should the laws of damages be different if the person damaged is a slave or a free person?
Now if there are any lawyers here, they will tell you that this is the problem that we have with any collection of laws. It does not matter which country we live in or how free we want our society to be. The legal system is a living organism; it is as alive as the people the law is regulating. There will always be laws we don’t like. There will always be laws that are easy and some that are hard. Sometimes we may think the punishment fits the crime and sometimes we feel that the punishment is way out of line. We understand the laws sometimes have to be changed and updated to fit with new realities. But how do you change the words that God speaks? How can we dare to question what God wants from us? If God commands us, how can we not obey? If the Torah teaches us the laws that should be the base of Israelite society, who are we to change them? American laws can be changed by an act of Congress. What kind of Congress can change the laws of the Torah?
This then speaks to the brilliance of the Talmud. The Rabbis did not seek to answer very many of the questions we asked; they asked better questions. What does God really mean by giving us all these laws? What does God really want from us? Is the Torah a legal code or a philosophy of law? Given that the law must change to fit new and emerging situations, then God must be giving us not specific laws, but the theory of law that should guide us as we grow ever more sophisticated and as life grows ever more complicated.
It matters less what the restitution should be for damages and theft but the fact that there is damage and that the person causing the damage must make restitution. God may or may not believe in the death penalty but the many references to the death penalty show us which crimes are serious enough to warrant serious punishment. We may no longer bring a sacrifice to the altar of God, but we have to understand that to be a part of a good society, we must be prepared not only to demand things from our government but to be prepared to sacrifice from our belongings to that government as well. One eye may not replace another eye but finding a just restitution for hurting someone else is preferred to either ignoring the problem or demanding unequal justice.
Too many people read this parsha and think that they are dealing with a God that is unjust, jealous of other gods, demanding and undemocratic. But if we look for the God behind the laws, we see a God of justice, compassion, truth and humanity. Laws can only be written to forbid one action or another. How can we pass laws that demand that people be honest, or kind, or generous, or loving to our fellow human beings? There is no such thing as a law that states, “Thou shalt be honest!” it is impossible to know sometimes how honest we are supposed to be (like when our spouse asks, “Do I look fat in this?”). I can teach that lying is wrong and I can punish someone who is lying, but how does one enforce honesty?
In good Talmudic fashion, the real law is the law behind the laws of the Torah. The work of Torah study is to ask the question, “If the death penalty is not a just punishment, what would a just punishment look like for these crimes?” and if we ban the death penalty, is there EVER a time when we think that the death penalty might be the correct punishment?
I can understand the Israelites, having been freed from slavery by God, agreeing to these laws as an act of gratitude for all that God had done for them. “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do” they declare at the end of the parsha. They agree to this law in covenant of blood. But they are connecting themselves to a God who cares for them, who delivered them, who gave them food, drink and protection in the desert. Can we find this same God in our lives? Can we connect to a God that gives us life and many blessings in that life, a God that protects us from the myriad problems that we must face today? Can we show as much gratitude to God for all that God does for us like our ancestors did at Sinai thousands of years ago? Can we express our gratitude by finding our unique way to serve God?
I have asked a lot of questions and there are not easy answers. The Rabbi can’t answer for you how to relate to God in your own life. As we experience more of life we need to find better and meaningful ways of connecting to God and thanking God for the blessings we receive. As we mature, we need to find more mature ways to offer something as a sacrifice in recognition of the blessings we already have. It can be as easy as dropping a donation in a tzedakah box or as complicated as adopting someone who needs constant help, so they don’t have to suffer alone. Can we find the message behind the message of Parshat Mishpatim and then use our hands, feet and heart to live the message we receive?
May God reveal to us the essence of divinity as God once revealed the divine to our ancestors and may we find our own way to live in response to God’s call …. As we say…
Amen and Shabbat Shalom.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, February 10, 2018.