Torah Ecology: Mishpatim 2017 (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18)

If the first three chapters of Genesis outline the relationships between G-d, creation and human beings, Yitro repeats that equation in the section on the 10 “Words” but with the significant additional element of a particular society (Israel, signified by “neighbor”).

Mishpatim (Ex 21:1 – 24:18) now zooms in on that community, providing it with a set of ordinances (Mishpatim) to govern relations within the community and between that community, its wider environment and transcendence.

I think there is a structure in these ordinances but have not yet unravelled the entire sequence, so I will note some marking points:

Ex 21:2 parallels Ex 23:10-12, forming the boundaries of what I think is a chiasm.  Ex 21:2 ordains that a Hebrew slave can only serve 6 years, then in the 7th year must be set free.

Ex 23:10-12 ordains that Israelites sow their land and harvest their olives and vineyards for 6 years and in the 7th years let the fields lie fallow, leaving the olives on the trees and grapes on the vine so first the poor, then the “beasts” can eat.

Ex 23:12 proclaims that Israelites must do their work in 6 days and on the 7th day rest. This rest extends to their beasts (ox and ass), the “son of your handmaid,” and the stranger, emblematic of every creature for whom an Israelite has responsibility.

This frame for the entire sequence of ordinances Moses delivers to the Israelite community puts forward the idea of freedom as primary and foundational. This freedom applies not only to every part of Israelite society, including those less advantaged, but to fellow creatures and to the natural environment itself. G-d is also free. As we will see, this freedom has boundaries based on relationships with other parts of the cosmos.

“Shavat,” the Hebrew word that describes what G-d does on the 7th day and is the basis for the name of the 7th day, Shabbat, also states the primary requirement for an Israelite on the 7th day: “cease.” This requirement to “cease,” applies not only to the Israelite but to any part of creation for which he or she is immediately responsible, whether other human beings, beasts in his or her care, or nature itself under his or her care.

The 7th year or the 7th day restores a balance. A slave goes free, the land rests and replenishes, providing the poor and the beasts of the field with nourishment. For a period of time, an Israelite can take — but there is also a time to give back, to allow restoration. In the 7th year or on the 7th day, Israelites feed their fellow creatures and the creation that sustains them during the other six.

Ex 22:17. This odd verse seems to pop in from nowhere in the context of these ordinances: “You shall not suffer a sorceress to live.” In a section of ordinances detailing correct relationships within society and with the wider environment, fellow creatures and transcendence, a section in which each ordinance is thereby transactional in nature, this single statement is not transactional. I think in  its uniqueness, it is the center of the chiasm.

The verse is sandwiched between ordinances related to sexual perversions that disrupt society and nature. Ex 22:15 declares “And if a man entice a virgin that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife.” Ex 22:18 says, “Whosoever lies with a beast shall surely be put to death.”

For the offense in Ex 22:15, seducing a virgin, there are remedies that serve to restore a correct balance in relationships. There is no possibility of restoration in regard to Ex 22:18, sexual “intimacy” with a beast. The solution is death, as for the sorceress. Sorcery and engaging in sex acts with an animal are profoundly anti-creation, so disruptive that the life of the offender must be taken. But how, exactly, is sorcery anti-creation?

The translation, “You shall not suffer a sorceress to live” camouflages the sharpness of the Hebrew, which doesn’t waste a syllable: מְכַשֵּׁפָה, לֹא תְחַיֶּה – three words. The first, M’ka’shefa (feminine form), translated “sorceress,” what does it mean?

Deut 18:9-14 lists a number of illicit and prohibited “wielders of supernatural power,” including a M’ka-shef (masculine form). One scholar notes that an Assyrian Dictionary glosses the verb kašāpu with “to bewitch, to cast an evil spell,” and the contexts cited share the sense of malevolent control of a person (or even place).

This last explanation seems particularly relevant to me. In a section of ordinances setting out correct relationships between an Israelite, the rest of creation and transcendence, bracketed by regulations that assert freedom as the foundation of these relationships and ordain a balance between them, a M’ka-shef/a represents a force that applies illegitimate supernatural controls. In that, it offends against all parts of cosmos by inappropriately restricting the moral freedom that unifies and is the foundation to everything.

The ordinances presented to the Israelites affirm the freedom of every part of the cosmos limited only by relationship to others, whether human, animal, the environment  or Transcendence. Thus Lurianic mysticism teaches that even G-d places restrictions on G-d’s self, contracts to allow freedom within appropriate boundaries to each individual, indeed every creature and nature itself. Seducing a virgin offends against society. Engaging in sexual acts with an animal offends against nature. Sorcery offends against the very fabric of cosmos, against creation, the creatures in it and transcendence.

In this powerful presentation of how we should live in the world, G-d also teaches through ordinances how we become partners in creating. Mishpatim tells us how to proclaim and support the freedom not only of each individual in a society but of all our fellow creatures and of nature through how we conduct ourselves in relationship to them. In observing these ordinances, in establishing correct relationships, we find our own freedom.

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