Mishpatimh 5782 -Write On

By: Michael Carr

The focus of Parsha Mishpatim is a fresh start and new direction where commandments are first presented in the Torah to the Israelites. The story goes that G-d tells Moses what he needs to present to the Israelites though he does not tell Moses how he needs to communicate these laws.
Why the need for a long list of commandments? After living as slaves for years, divine guidance about right, wrong and what a just society looks like was in demand.

This Parsha is really about G-d giving Moses this long list of laws about how Israelites were to live and behave towards one another when dealing with areas of life such as slavery, ox goring, judicial ethics/corruption, sex, treatment of the poor and holiday observances. It seems like G-d was tuned into the salacious activities of people ‘sleeping around’ and neighbors killing neighbors ‘willy-nilly’ for like not returning a cup of borrowed sugar or stuff like that. For centuries rabbi’s have studied and deciphered the meanings and interpretations of these laws some of which have helped shaped various areas of our society such as the judicial system or how we provide for those who are impoverished.

The Parsha discusses how Moses orally presents these laws (initially from memory) to the Israelites. Following Moses’ ‘presentation’ and to confirm their understanding, these wayward and vulnerable Israelite survivors of slavery desperate for direction and a little hope respond by saying to Moses “nah-ah say” (we will do). So while Moses is certain he communicated this ‘preliminary’ list of laws the way G-d had communicated them to him, and he receives an oral ‘Israelite confirmation’, Moses does something out of the ordinary. He codifies and establish’s a permanent record of the commandments by writing them down on a scroll or tablet.

Back in the day many Israelites, & people in general, lacked the skills to read (weird for a group of people who have been referred to as ‘People of the Book’-you know, Torah, prayer books and Talmud). A quote from Theodore Bikel exemplifies this, “After the advent of the written word, the masses who could not – or were not permitted to – read, were given sermons by the few who could.”
Further still, the norm was not necessarily to write anything nor were Israelites necessarily capable of doing so, perhaps that is why back in the 5th century there were sofer’s or scribes (Jewish Scholars some who carry on the tradition today).

Moses reads the commandments again from the scroll/tablet that he annotates and those Israelites who were present repeat again, ‘nah-ah say’ and supposedly add,’ v’nish-ma’ (we will listen/obey). Of course as we may remember from last year’s Torah readings- some Israelites got it and understood and others maybe not so much as we will find out in weeks of Torah readings to come (not to be a spoiler but you know I’m referring to situations like golden calf’s, violence, wars, death and sexual inappropriateness – YIKES! Yep, stay tuned cuz it’s all in the line-up of 2022 Shabbat Torah readings!).
So as today’s Parsha goes, after Moses again receives oral confirmation from the People, he & Aaron along with Aaron’s son’s and 70 or so wise scholarly types from the tribe of Israel ascend Mount Sinai for another meet-up with G-d.

To spice up today’s story, supposedly, the Midrash describes what G-d does/says in front of this austere sub-group of Israelites (for example, picture G-d standing on a perch of beautiful opals and reiterating the laws/commandments once again). This story however is not all ‘Hollywood drama’ like the thunder bolts of lightning/dark clouds and G-d speaking from a cloud or from an ornate pedestal. It’s really about the commandments and more importantly how the divine laws were to be incorporated into daily life.
Other than the most fundamental idea that writing is a means of communication, did Moses have other motivations for ‘commandment documentation’?

Were they written because of the need for accuracy and to prove to G-d that if he understood the laws it would be easier for others to comply with the laws as well?

Did Moses’ believe that written laws were something that would be passed to future generations?

Or was writing these commandments an attempt to simply place emphasis on their holy and practical importance?

Maybe Moses had difficulty expressing the emotional aspects of the commandments and believed writing them down would provide further emphasis of their importance.

Today we write out of the desire or need to communicate our thoughts/ideas. Sometimes we communicate with the written word to sanctify our thoughts, feelings, actions and creativity. Written commitments and messages are found in, well, D’var Torah’s, the purchase or lease of residential property, marriage vows (a Ketubah) or (sometimes) a Gettin for a divorce. Meaningful written words are key components of legal documents like a traffic ticket as well as children’s bedtime story.

I often need reminding that while written words are important, often it’s how words are expressed in our spoken messages that affects the recipients acceptance of the message itself.
So going forward today may we remember the moment by moment importance of our written and spoken words and how we communicate our messages for others.

May we be safe.
May we be healthy.
May we be happy.
May we be joyful.

Good Shabbos!