This week’s portion is all about civil laws. In this, Judaism differs, perhaps, from most other religions, if not all. (I’m more than happy to stand corrected on this!) I can’t think of another text, that serves as the basis for a religion, that has such a broad body of civil laws within it. Usually, the religion provides the rituals through which one serves God, or gods, and civil laws are left to the secular government to decide. Not in Judaism. Civil laws are as fundamental a part of Torah as religious ritual.
And this points to something that I have talked about before. The Ten Commandments begin with ‘I am the Lord your God…’. This is an introduction to the laws that come immediately after it – idol worship, swearing in God’s name and the Sabbath. But it is also an introduction to the rest of the Ten Commandments such as not to kill, steal or bear false witness. In this way the Torah was different to any code of law that came before it – and almost every code of law that has come since. Civil laws are not practical structures to prevent people from eating each other alive; agreed upon conventions to provide a stable society. Rather, they are a code of ethics, a set of Godly values.
If a secular government tells me not to steal, it is because stealing undermines stability in our society; if we all stole from each other, none of us would be able to build the lives that we have. And so, because it is in my own interests not to be stolen from, it is also in my own interests not to steal.
However, when God tells me not to steal, that is something entirely different. It has nothing to do with society and everything to do with me. I should not steal because it is ‘wrong’ to do so. It is an immoral act. And so, Torah teaches a code of ethics, not a code of law. And most of that code is in this week’s portion.
But all of this is just in introduction to my point, which is as follows.
It is fascinating that these civil laws come hot on the heels of the Sinai experience. The Jewish People made a commitment to keep God’s Torah and the first laws that are given are not laws as to how to worship God, rather laws as to how to behave towards one’s fellow human beings. And I love the implied message. It isn’t necessarily so hard for a human being to humble himself before an Almighty God – to accept ‘his’ authority, to worship ‘him’ and to follow ‘his’ commands. Whilst ego is still a factor, it is less so. However, the real challenge of following a code of ethics comes with our fellow human beings; when there is money involved, when there is power involved, when there is honour involved, when there is ego involved…. All too often, and I can only speak for Judaism, but my guess is it’s true elsewhere also, people embrace the easy part and ignore the hard part. The religion becomes about serving God, almost exclusively; appropriate behaviour towards others takes a distant back seat – losing sight of the realisation that how we treat those created in God’s image is very much a part of how we treat God. It makes me sad, sometimes, to see how some individuals, whilst incredibly pious in their adherence to Jewish ritual, have incredibly low standards for themselves in how they behave towards others.
The Torah addresses this right away. The Jewish People have made a commitment to serving God. And God says to them that the starting point is serving others. Love, forgiveness, compassion, humility – and all the behaviour that follows those beautiful, Godly feelings are where Judaism begins. If you can’t treat others properly, you won’t even get to first base.
Parsha in a Nutshell
This week’s portion is absolutely packed. You name it, it’s talked about: murder, kidnap, murderous bulls, stoned oxen, dangerous holes, witches, seduction, swearing and slavery. It also contains one of the most misunderstood phrases in the Torah: ‘an eye for an eye’ – which of course refers to monetary restitution.
This portion also contains the punishment for one who hits their parents: the death penalty – someone so unappreciative of the gift of life that they could hit the one who gave it, is not worthy of participating in a life they deem to be of such little value.