Parashat Mishpatim

We Are The Narrative

In the shift from narrative to law, we become the actors performing the narrative of liberation.

Print this page Print this page

Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

Every year at this time it happens: I become disappointed in the Torah. Thunder and lightning and voices of revelation at Sinai are followed by the plodding specificity of the civil and religious laws of Mishpatim. The Torah goes from narrative to endless laws and detailed instructions for a good portion of the remainder of the five books.

A Real Thud

Going from Yitro to Mishpatim we come down the mountain with a real thud. Gone are the salacious family stories of Genesis and the dramatic national birth story of Exodus. Starting with this week’s parashah, sitting in synagogue week after week, one can hear yawns all around. What happened to the joy of sheer story? Why do we move from aggadah (narrative) to halakhah (law)?

To complicate matters further: after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?

One can understand this shift from Sinai to laws concerning slavery in two interrelated ways:

Misphatim begins with the following law: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free.” (Exodus 21:2)

It’s almost as if they are given a law in which they are commanded to transform, to revolutionize their own consciousness. You can own a slave, but after seven years, you must set that slave free. You were a slave, and now you will be a master. And as a master you must liberate. As God liberated you, so must you set your slave free--a clear example of tzelem elokim (being created in the image of God), or to put it another words, imatatio dei (the imitation of God).

A Shift from Narrative to Law

The shift from narrative to law begins to have meaning in the context of this same shift of power. Until this point in the text we are told a story. We are watching these events happen to others. But, where story becomes law we are told how to live our lives. We are supremely implicated.

The very first law captures the story that the Israelites had just experienced, and yet, at the same point tells them to take control of that narrative and perform it themselves--perform exodus, perform liberation. You may be masters, but you must become liberators. Every seven years.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Dianne Cohler-Esses is the first Syrian Jewish woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She was ordained in 1995 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently a freelance educator and writer, teaching and writing about a wide range of Jewish subjects. She lives in New York City with her journalist husband and their three children.