I have discussed previously that Jewish law recognizes three kinds of mitzvot, or commandments.The first kind of laws are mishpatim, or ethical rules. These are the ethical guidelines for living that any compassionate person might come up with if they thought about the situation enough. The second kind of laws are the the zakhorim, or tribal (or national) remembrances. These tell the observer to keep in mind the history of the Children of Israel, and help the observer identify with and find his place within the Jewish people as a whole. The most important remembrance is to remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and God brought you out of bondage to make you a free man. The third kind of laws are the chukim, or esoteric rules. These are usually somewhat strange and non-obvious, such as not mixing linen and wool in the same garment. Doing so will not help perpetuate any remembrance, nor will it lead to any ethical action, and yet it is in the Torah, so it falls into the third category. Kabbalists and other Jewish mystics often attach deep significance to the chukim as mystical observances with deep esoteric meaning.
This week's Torah portion is named after the first statistically improbable phrase in the portion. This portion begins, "Now these are the judgments [mishpatim] that thou wilt set before them." [Exodus 21:1]. What follows is a list of 53 ethical rules, that cover a wide range of situations, but all of which are very specific. For example, if an ox gores a human being to death, the ox will be put down, but its owner will not be responsible for the death, unless the ox has a history of aggressive behavior, and has been warned by the community about the ox's behavior, in which case both the ox and its owner will be put to death. [Exodus 21: 28-29].
Some of the rules seem a bit odd today. A male slave is to be freed at the start of the seventh year of servitude, but if the slave wants to remain the property of his master, he will publicly declare that he loves his master and does not wish to go free, upon which his master will bring the slave to a court of law to declare this, and then to the doorpost of his home, and there pierce the slave's ear with an awl against the doorpost.[Exodus 21: 2, 6-7]. Much of this makes sense, except for piercing the slave's ear against the doorpost. It could be that in ancient times, among men only slaves pierced their ears, but that would not explain why it had to be done against the doorpost of his master's house. Jewish law requires a house to have a mezuzah nailed to the doorpost, so maybe, in a sense, the voluntary slave is like a mezuzah, but I admit that's a stretch.
This is one of several places in the Torah where the Lex Talonis appears. Literally, this passage says, "And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." [Exodus 21: 23-25]. It should be strongly noted that Rabbinic Judaism (pretty much every Jew except the Karaites and Samaritans, who collectively number only around a few thousand on earth) does not take this to mean that an eye requires an eye, or that a tooth requires a tooth. This is important. This has been taken throughout the Jewish world to mean that if a person strikes out the eye of another person, striking out the eye of the culprit is the maximal penalty possible. Similarly, the maximum punishment for knocking out a tooth would be to have one tooth knocked out. Even if a person were to sever the foot of the High Priest or the king, the most severe punishment he could receive would be to have his foot severed off. No death penalty could be exacted no matter who received the injury from whom.
By the time of the redacting of the Talmud, this law was interpreted to require monetary damages rather mutilation as the penalty for these offenses. Jews regard punishment by mutilation as barbaric, and have for at least two thousand years.
There is also a kind of Castle Law in these rules. If someone breaks into your home at night, and you kill him, it is not murder, but justifiable homicide. However, if the killing happens during the day, it is murder. [Exodus 22: 1-2].
If a man has to sell his only clothing off his back to repay his debt to you, you have to provide him with clothing by the end of the day, so that he doesn't freeze that night. [Exodus 22: 25-26].
If you come upon your enemy's ox or donkey going astray, you are required to bring it back to him. If you see the beast of burden of someone you hate collapsing under a heavy load, you are required to make every effort to help the animal in distress, even though you might be inclined to do nothing to help your enemy. [Exodus 23: 4-5].
After declaring the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the Torah portion ends with a mystical visionary scene that is much commented upon by the Kabbalists. God tells Moses to bring Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron who will later die in a spiritual technology mishap, along with the seventy tribal leaders, with him to appear before God Himself. Moses alone is permitted to approach God directly. Moses lays the laws before the Children of Israel, who collectively and unanimously give their consent. Then Moses leads the gathered party of 72 to ascend Mount Sinai, there to have a collective vision of God: "And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness." [Exodus 24: 10].
The sapphire footstool is much commented upon in Jewish mystical writings. Ezekiel describes the Throne of Glory as made of sapphire. Sapphire appears in many mystical visions in Jewish literature, often being described as utterly transparent, and only blue because the sky is blue. Sapphires in Jewish tradition are emblematical of the Third Eye, and Jewish mystics have a meditation practice of focusing the mind on a single point, imagining that one looks at the point through a third eye made of sapphire.
The Torah tells us that after seeing God, the party of 72 ate and drank. Most commenters regard this as a blasphemous mistake, some going so far as to say that this is why Nadab and Abihu were struck dead in the book of Leviticus. Others interpret the eating and drinking as allegorical, that the vision fed them better than food or drink could. Still others say that the food and drink were celebratory after their collective vision.
The passage ends with Moses entering the cloud at the summit of Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets of the Law (which some commentators regard as being made of sapphire), and remaining there for forty days and forty nights. As we shall see, in his absence, much mischief occurs.