"These are the rules that you shall set before them:' (Ex 21:1).
Thus begins the parasha Mishpatim, and what follows is a long list of "what-ifs?" The scenarios range from freeing indentured servants, to parent/child relationships, to property/tort cases, murder, public fighting, loans, and business practices, and finally, to a restatement of promises between God and Israel about their battles with other peoples. It's a pretty exhaustive list.
The list begins with human relationships, and ends with the one between God and the people. At the beginning, we don't read laws about how the Israelites treat one another, though that concept takes up a good deal of ink on the Torah scroll. This first one, rather, talks about what could be described as an unequal relationship, that of a servant to a master. A slave's tenure has an expiration date, unless that individual expressly indicates that he wishes to stay with the master. And, interestingly, if the slave has arrived as married man, his family must stay with him, and be protected by the master, recognizing a whole family unit. Later we read, "When a person (the Hebrew is " ish"- man) strikes the eye of a slave, male or female, and destroys it, that person shall let the slave go free on account of the eye." (Ex 21:26). The same is true if a slave's tooth gets knocked out.
I'm not trying to defend slavery at all. Certainly, a half-blind former slave wouldn't fare well as a free man, trying to make a living, and remaining in the slave/master relationship would at least give him food and shelter. I am, however, noting that, right from the start, Torah recognizes every single person as " b'tzelem Elohim ," made in the image of God. This concept of b'tzelem elohim is the very first thing required for a good relationship, built on respect and dignity. No matter those who are in this relationship, if respect and dignity aren't at the foundation, it is bound to fail.
Few texts bring this into light as much as these verses from the parasha: "When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must bring it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising, you must nevertheless raise it with him." (Ex 23:4-5) Bechor Shor, a 12 th century French commentator, and student of Rashbam, read this as even your enemy's ox, because it is harder to help an enemy than a friend. We don't have to be reminded or commanded to help our friends. But to help an enemy is to crush the evil impulse, he said. Ibn Ezra, from a similar time frame in Spain, says the ox or ass may be that of a poor person, and in helping him, you would be doing a kindness, in addition to fulfilling a commandment. Imagine what it takes to fulfill this particular commandment. You have to notice that enemy. You have to assess his situation. You have to go over there and have a conversation, offer to help, and work together to solve the problem. You have to enter into a relationship, however brief, with your "enemy" and accomplish something together.
To see our enemies as individuals, also made b'tzelem Elohim, is to delve into the hardest part of a relationship. We can justify our actions against our enemies by reducing them to non-humans, entities without any human dignity. We know the dangers of this thinking. We don't have to cast back too far in our collective memories to when we Jews were seen as vermin/non-humans; it's easier to justify wiping out vermin than it is people. To be sure, there are instances of individuals whose behavior is impossible to justify; there are consequences to their actions. But an entire people must not be painted in the color of inhumanity, lest we are painted with the same. Mishpatim teaches us that although we may see another nation as an enemy, that nation is made up of people, people who are b'zelem Elohim and must be treated accordingly.
Mishpatim reads like a bullet point list of how to create a humane, just, and righteous society. We are just a week after the inexplicable spiritual experience of receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. What comes next, after that heavenly encounter? The very real, on-the-ground ways to live each day in a way that will bring us closer to that encounter, whether it's a week ago or millennia.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com .