Commentary on Parashat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 - 24:18
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
The word mishpatim means “laws” or “ordinances,” and comes from a root that means judge or judgment. This parsha contains civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws — the Torah doesn’t seem to make the same distinctions that we do between civil and criminal, religious and secular legislation.
Towards the end of the parsha, the holidays are reviewed, and God repeats the promise to bring the people to the land of Canaan. Moses makes a sacrifice in front of the entire Israelite leadership, and they have a wondrous vision of God. Moses goes back up the mountain, and stays there in a cloud to receive the law.
“You shall not revile God, nor curse a leader among your people. ” (Exodus 22:2 — but counted as Exodus 22:28 in some Christian translations.)
Chapter 22 contains a mix of different kinds of laws, pertaining to everything from liability for damaging animals to sexual prohibitions to dietary laws. In context, perhaps this law, about cursing judges and leaders, is related to the other laws in that everybody accepts some restrictions on their freedom in order that society may function. Without some common understanding of the customs of ownership, family life, sexuality, and so on, it might be hard to live together as a community. Similarly, if people do not accept some form of leadership, society would break down into anarchy, which is anathema to the culture of the Bible.
To many commentators, this is one integrated commandment, because they understand leadership as fulfilling the word of God. Thus, someone who curses the leader or the judge is implicitly rejecting the authority of God, whose laws the leader is (at least theoretically) enacting.
However, the commandment not to curse a leader is by no means a commandment to accept flawed leaders without question — the Bible is full of positive examples of people criticizing their leaders. A gentle example comes from the previous parsha (Exodus 18:1-20:23), when Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, gives him some constructive criticism about taking on too much, and then advises him to delegate many of his responsibilities (Exodus 18).
A more forceful example of criticizing a communal leader is the prophet Natan’s famous rebuke of King David, after David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed on the battlefield so he could marry her. (2 Samuel 11-12) Natan approaches the king directly, and even gets David to confess how wrong his deeds were — there was no question of letting David get away with corruption just because he was the king.
In fact, the historical and prophetic books of the Bible are just full of instances of leaders acting badly and then being denounced for it — so why does the Torah tell us not to curse a “leader among the people?”
Perhaps there is a subtle but crucial difference between criticism and cursing. While some criticism is just useless griping, the kind of critique that the prophets offered was always in the hope that people could change and improve their behavior. Natan confronted David not to bring down his kingship, but so that he would confess and repent.
Contrast this with the passive anger towards the political system felt by so many people today. Voter turnouts are frequently low in Canadian, American, and Israeli elections — people love to curse the leaders, but that’s not the same as getting involved for positive change. Maimonides notes that “cursing” is a form of anger, which he regards as a destructive emotion, at least when it’s not connected to constructive action.
Another interesting observation is made by the 14th-century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati, who points out that cursing the leadership, even if it has no physical effect, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage people from taking positions of public service.* Exactly the same point has been made in countless Canadian and American newspaper editorials during the various public scandals of the past few years, especially when journalists and opposition parties engage in what some call the “politics of personal destruction.”
I believe that the Torah encourages — even demands — holding leadership accountable to the highest moral and legal standards. Nobody, not even King David, is above the law. Too often, however, we are content to curse the system without any involvement in it, which serves no one, and changes nothing. This whole section of the Torah conveys a very different message: a good society depends on the participation and moral responsibility of each individual. It’s easy to curse the leadership, but it’s better to work together for a better community.
*These two commentaries are quoted in The Mitzvot by Abraham Chill.
Pronounced: PAR-sha or par-SHAH, Origin: Hebrew, portion, usually referring to the weekly Torah portion.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.