Torah Ecology: Mishpatim 2018 (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18)

Increasingly I focus my attention on a paradox: the beautiful vision of Genesis 1-3 against a world filled with bloodshed and violence in the rest of the Torah, a world in which bloodshed is deliberately increased through animal sacrifice.

It is very difficult for me to imagine how the same “mind” that put forward the vision of Gen. 1-3 also put forward a project that included the terrified cries of a sacrificial animal and the stench of blood on the altar as a form of worship. How can this kind of worship express both joy and gratitude and act as atonement? Or as another writer put it, what was at stake that made this act that seems so horrific meaningful?

The first three chapters of Genesis offer an extraordinary and powerful vision of the spiritual unity of all being in a harmony of differences. Chapter 4 jolts us out of that vision as we begin the path into a world where violence and corruption overwhelm the intention of creation.

Human agency has a role in shaping that world of violence and bloodshed, and that agency brings with it blood guilt. I’m not sure that I can detail yet exactly how that happens in the text or what it means, but it does seem to produce an economy in which animal blood, representing life, pays what is due for human blood guilt.

Human beings are privileged over other animals because they are “in the image” of G-d. Taking a human life brings heavy consequences. In the economy of creation, taking a life requires payment with a life — a life for a life:

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! (Gen. 9:5)

This verse points not only to the idea that human life is sacred, that it is privileged above all other life because human beings are in the image of G-d, but that animals, like humans, are morally accountable in relation to taking the life of a human being.  This week’s portion fills in the legislative specifics of those concepts.

Last year I explored the parallel themes of moral freedom and restrictions on freedom for the sake of relationship in Mishpatim.  This year I narrow my focus to the relationship between humans, specifically Israelites, and animals. These relationships are based on a balance between freedom and restrictions on freedom and, in that framework, moral accountability.

In Yitro, last week, I explored the idea of valuing lives. Following are the animal references in Mishpatim, a particularly rich portion for discovering how lives are valued, what are “correct” relationships, and the dimensions of moral accountability:

* * * * *

The first five passages below deal with domestic animals, primarily an ox. In all cases but the first, the ox is dealt with as property. In the first passage, the ox is a morally accountable, subject to capital punishment if the ox takes a human life — whether that act was accidental (the ox was not in the habit of goring) or premeditated (that ox has been in the habit of goring).

The moral accountability of the ox is demonstrated in the consequence of its being stoned, a punishment meted out to human beings for offenses like blasphemy, idolatry, desecration of the Sabbath, witchcraft, rebelling against one’s parents, prostitution of a betrothed virgin, or deception of a husband at marriage with regard to one’s chastity. We might say these are offenses against the order of creation, as would be the offense of a homicidal ox.

Ex. 21:28-32 – “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, although warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. If ransom is laid upon him, he must pay whatever is laid upon him to redeem his life. So, too, if it gores a minor, male or female, [the owner] shall be dealt with according to the same rule. But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.”

Ex. 21:33- 37 – “When a man opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit must make restitution; he shall pay the price to the owner, but shall keep the dead animal. When a man’s ox injures his neighbor’s ox and it dies, they shall sell the live ox and divide its price; they shall also divide the dead animal. If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring, and its owner has failed to guard it, he must restore ox for ox, but shall keep the dead animal. When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep.”

Ex. 22:1-4 – “…the thief is seized while tunneling, and he is beaten to death, there is no blood guilt in his case. If the sun has risen on him, there is blood guilt in that case. –He must make restitution; if he lacks the means, he shall be sold for his theft. But if what he stole — whether ox or ass or sheep — is found alive in his possession, he shall pay double. When a man lets his livestock loose to graze in another’s land, and so allows a field or a vineyard to be grazed bare, he must make restitution for the impairment of that field or vineyard.”

Ex. 22:8 – “In all charges of misappropriation–pertaining to an ox, an ass, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss, whereof one party alleges, ‘This is it’ — the case of both parties shall come before G-d: he whom G-d declares guilty shall pay double to the other.”

Ex. 22:9-14 – “When a man gives to another an ass, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to guard, and it dies or is injured or is carried off, with no witness about, an oath before the Lord shall decide between the two of them that the one has not laid hands on the property of the other; the owner must acquiesce, and no restitution shall be made. But if [the animal] was stolen from him, he shall make restitution to its owner. If it was torn by beasts, he shall bring it as evidence; he need not replace what has been torn by beasts. When a man borrows [an animal] from another and it dies or is injured, its owner not being with it, no restitution need be made; but if it was hired, he is entitled to the hire.”

* * * * *

Ex. 22:18 – “Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death.”

In Leviticus 20:15, this legislation adds that the animal should also be put to death:

וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֧ן שְׁכָבְתּ֛וֹ בִּבְהֵמָ֖ה מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֑ת וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָ֖ה תַּהֲרֹֽגוּ׃

If a man has carnal relations with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. Both the human and the animal offend against creation, and both pay for this transgression with their lives.

* * * * *

These next three passages refer back to the vision of Genesis 1-3 in which animals and humans share the spiritual roundtable, a world that offers us an “extraordinary and powerful vision of the spiritual unity of all being in a harmony of differences.” We are not confronted with the image of human superiority to animals based on the idea that they are “in the image” of G-d — but with the requirement for justice and compassion in relation to all life:

Ex. 22:29-30 – “You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me. You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat  flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.”

Ex. 23:4-5 – “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”

Ex. 23:11-12 – “…in the seventh [year] you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.”

* * * * *

Finally we return to the idea of animal sacrifice, leveling the field between human beings and other animals in another way, by reminding human beings that in this post-Genesis 1-3 world, they are also part of the cycle of prey and predator. They have a path toward a different life through no merit of their own but through the saving grace of G-d that offers the mechanism of animal sacrifice. Even as human beings, Israelites in particular, are distinguished — they are reminded of their obligation to show compassion to other animals and their obligation to G-d:

Ex. 23:18 – “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of my festal offering shall not be left lying until morning.

Ex. 23:19b – “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Ex. 23:29 – “I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt. I will drive them out before you little by little…”

Ex. 24:5-6 – “He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!’ Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands.”

What is at stake in this system of animal sacrifice? The life of human beings. Animal sacrifice is payment for a human debt of both moral culpability for transgressions against life and joyful gratitude that their own lives are spared, that by fulfilling a covenant relationship which restricts their predatory urges, they can save themselves from becoming prey.

I am not yet fully satisfied with this understanding of the meaning of animal sacrifice, but I inch closer to a center of meaning as I work through these portions each year. Perhaps it is my own inability to derive meaning from this practice that prevents me from seeing what had to have been a powerful experience for those who participated in it, at least until it became routinized.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *