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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

18. How Far Humans Have Come

Updated: Apr 8

When it comes to morality, we always have a choice.


Parshah Mishpatim


TL;DR of the Text

Major Themes

  • Slavery and the treatment of enslaved people

  • Women’s rights

  • Tort law vs. “an eye for an eye”

  • Abortion

  • Acts of negligence

  • Duty toward animals

  • The death penalty

  • The Earth deserves a break, too

  • Israeli vs. Palestinian claims on the land


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash: the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Exodus 21:1-6*

“And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them: If you buy a Jewish bondsman, he shall work for six years; and in the seventh he shall go free, for no charge. If he shall arrive by himself, he shall leave by himself; if he is the husband of a woman, his wife shall leave with him. If his master will give him a woman and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out by himself. 

But if the bondsman shall say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children - I shall not go free’; then his master shall bring him to court… and he shall serve him forever.”

Some of the laws we’re going to read in the following chapters are stomach-turning. I am not, in any way, condoning the practices or the laws governing them. 


If we truly want to understand this book, we have to remember both its historical context and how far we’ve come as humans since this time in history. We study these laws today and are rightly horrified by the very concept of slavery. 


Still, the only reason we are even able to be horrified today is because our ancient ancestors made a fledgling, inadequate attempt to put some guardrails on our behavior. The Torah didn’t create slavery - it was ubiquitous at the time. If God had taken Israel straight from “ever-present, unregulated slavery” to abolition, the nation likely would have rebelled and the whole enterprise would have been forfeit. Instead, the Torah took the first step, and put everyone on the road we’re still traveling: one that led to abolition and will eventually culminate in genuine equality and reparations. 


The only reason we are even able to be horrified by slavery today is because our ancient ancestors made a fledgling, inadequate attempt to put some guardrails on our behavior.

The Code of Hammurabi is widely seen as an admirable initial attempt to codify justice. It predates the Torah by roughly a millennia, and the two contain some similar laws. 


When we evaluate this book, we must place it in the same historical context as Hammurabi’s code. This effort is complicated by the billions of people around the world who think the Torah’s literal word is still just as relevant today as it was back then. If we ignore those people, we can appreciate the Torah’s attempt for what it is: the start of a long journey - one that met the Israelites where they were. 


We can appreciate the Torah’s attempt for what it is: the start of a long journey - one that met the Israelites where they were.

Exodus 21:7-11*

“If a man will sell his daughter as a bondswoman, she shall not leave like the leavetaking of the slaves. If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master, who should have designated her for himself, he shall assist in her redemption; he shall not have the power to sell her to a strange man, for he had betrayed her. 

If he had designated her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the rights of the young women. If he shall take another in addition to her, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital relationship. If he does not perform these three for her, she shall leave free of charge, without payment.” 

Again, stomach-turning. The mention of a “marital relationship” means at least one option for female bond slavery was sexual slavery. As disgusting as it is, she had protected rights within the context of this horrible institution. 


A critical right outlawed the selling and/or reselling of women through middlemen; her master had a duty to “designate her for himself,” and he couldn’t sell her to another person. If he didn’t like her, he couldn’t traffick her. He had a duty to make her whole and free her to return to her family. 


Exodus 21:12-13*

“One who strikes a man, so that he dies, shall surely be put to death. But for one who had not lain in ambush and God had caused it to come to his hand, I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee.”

In addition to a distinction between murder and manslaughter, the Torah added extra protection to shield the manslaughterer from potential revenge. 


Exodus 21:20-21*

“If a man shall strike his slave or his maidservant with the rod and he shall die under his hand, he shall surely be avenged. But if he will survive for a day or two, he shall not be avenged, for he is his property.” 

In contrast, the United States slave codes did not apply punishment if someone accidentally killed an enslaved person while punishing them. The Torah protected enslaved people more than the US, despite preceding US slavery law by thousands of years. 

The Torah protected enslaved people more than the US, despite preceding US slavery law by thousands of years.

Exodus 21:22*

“If men shall fight and they collide with a pregnant woman and she miscarries, but there will be no fatality, he shall surely be punished as the husband of the woman shall cause to be assessed against him, and he shall pay it by the order of judges.”

This essential Jewish concept could add a much-needed dimension to the abortion debate. Jews don’t see fetuses as life, nor do we see them as a “clump of cells.” We see them as something with the potential for life, a category with independent value. Abortion cannot be murder because “there will be no fatality” with a miscarriage, but it does have significance and meaning. 


We see fetuses as something with the potential for life, a category with independent value.

The people who try to treat abortion as no big deal ignore the woman’s emotional experience; abortion is traumatic, no matter your political opinion about the practice. We need to admit the truth of this fraught topic. As in most cases, the truth doesn’t live in either of the extremes championed by each side - it’s found in the middle ground between the two. 


Exodus 21:23-24*

“If there shall be a fatality, then you shall award a life for a life; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot…”

“The Torah is so brutal! What about the ‘eye for an eye’ stuff?” 

The Torah is brutal, but not because it recommends trading an eye for a literal eye. The Code of Hammurabi did, which is why the Torah emphasizes in both this verse and the preceding one that it’s talking about a monetary award. 


You didn’t poke out someone’s eye; you went to a judge and paid the amount deemed compensatory for an eye. It was early tort law. 


Exodus 21:26-27*

“If a man shall strike the eye of his slave or the eye of his maidservant and destroy it, he shall set him free in return for his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his slave or of his maidservant, he shall set him free in return for his tooth.”

When it came to punishment, the law significantly constrained enslavers. The enslavers knew they risked losing their enslaved people if they treated them harshly. Again, a marked improvement over US slavery. 


Exodus 21:28-30*

“If an ox shall gore a man or woman and he shall die, the ox shall surely be stoned; its flesh may not be eaten and the owner of the ox shall be innocent. 

But if it was an ox that gores habitually from yesterday and the day before yesterday, and its owners had been warned but did not guard it, and it killed a man or woman, the ox shall be stoned and even its owner shall die. When an atonement-payment shall be assessed against him, he shall pay as a redemption for his life whatever shall be assessed against him.”

This verse contains a few essential and unrelated lessons.


The reason for prohibiting eating the flesh of an animal who gored a person is to prevent anyone from profiting from violence. 


Jewish tort law applied to men and women equally. 


When the Torah condemned the ox’s owner to death, it meant the owner would have to pay an amount equivalent to his life.


The ox who habitually gored tackled the definition of negligence; we have a degree of responsibility for the things we fail to prevent. 


We have a degree of responsibility for the things we fail to prevent.

Exodus 21:25*

“If one man’s ox shall strike his fellow’s ox which dies, they shall sell the living ox and divide its money, and the carcass, too, shall they divide.”

This was surprisingly fair, and provided a lesson in the limits of our culpability. As animals, there’s only so much we can control oxen. Even though one person’s ox caused another person’s ox to lose their life, it wasn’t the first person’s fault. The second person still suffered a loss, so they split the restitution. 


Exodus 22:1-2*

“If the thief is discovered while tunneling in, and he is struck and dies, there is no blood-guilt on his account. If the sun shone upon him, there is blood-guilt on his account.” 

Here’s another example of how the Torah puts some modern laws to shame.


If you found a thief digging a tunnel to sneak into your home and you killed them, you were innocent, because you could reasonably assume that if they were willing to sneak into your house, they were willing to kill you. However, if you found a thief out in the open, walking toward your house, and they uncovered their face, you couldn’t kill them. Their lack of stealth proved they didn’t intend to kill you, and you couldn’t kill to protect your property - only your life. Compared to the Stand Your Ground laws around the world, this view is almost benevolent.   


Exodus 22:15-16*

"If a man shall seduce a virgin who was not betrothed and lie with her, he shall provide her with a marriage contract as his wife. If her father refuses to give her to him, he shall weigh out silver according to the marriage contract of the virgins.” 

The Torah is referencing consensual premarital sex, not sexual assault. It protected women at a time when they very much needed protection from men. As an additional sign of respect for the woman, even though the girl was no longer a virgin by this point, the man still paid the virgin dowry price. 


Exodus 22:20-23*

“You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not cause pain to any widow or orphan. If you [dare to] cause him pain..! - for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”

The second sentence reads as if God got so mad at the idea of the Israelites being cruel to strangers in their land that He couldn’t even finish His thought. 


This promise came true with the war on Gaza. God is giving Israel an opportunity to broadcast their choices to the whole world. 


Exodus 22:24-26*

“When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest upon him. If you take your fellow’s garment as security, until sunset shall you return it to him. 

For it alone is his clothing, it is his garment for his skin - in what should he lie down? - so it will be that if he cries out to Me, I shall listen, for I am compassionate.”

Don’t remove anything necessary for a person to maintain dignity. 


Also, God pays special attention to and has special affection for the poor. 


Exodus 23:2-3*

“Do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert [the law]. Do not glorify a destitute person in his grievance.” 

Impartiality must always take precedence, even if the person deserves sympathy. 


Exodus 23:4-5*

“If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him repeatedly. If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? - you shall help repeatedly with him.” 

It doesn’t matter how much you dislike someone - nothing absolves you of your duty to animals. 


Nothing absolves you of your duty to animals.

Exodus 23:7*

“Do not execute the innocent or the righteous, for I shall not exonerate the wicked.” 

GIF from Fresh Prince of Lisa saying, "How did we even get here?"

I can’t support the death penalty for this reason. I don’t object to the principle; I believe some people deserve to die. With our current justice system, we have no way of knowing whether people are genuinely guilty. We can’t risk it. 


It’s a sign of how perverted our society has become that it’s even thinkable to execute someone without 10,000% certainty of their guilt. 



Exodus 23:10-12*

“Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. And in the seventh, you shall leave it untended and unharvested, and the destitute of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left of them; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove. 

Six days shall you accomplish your activities, and on the seventh day you shall desist, so that your ox and donkey may be content and your maidservant’s son and the sojourner may be refreshed.” 

The Sabbatical year represents such a beautiful demonstration of respect for the Earth. It always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside; the Earth has worked for us for six years, and She got to rest on the seventh. In the same vein, we worked for six days, and everyone rested on the seventh - the family, enslaved people, and animals. 


Exodus 23:19*

“You shall not cook a kid in the milk of its mother.” 

The kosher prohibition against mixing meat and dairy originates from this verse. The reasoning goes as follows: a mother’s milk gives life, and meat is death. Energetically, it’s unnatural to mix the two. 


Exodus 23:22-30*

“For if you hearken to [my angel’s] voice and carry out all that I shall speak, then I shall be the enemy of your enemies and persecute your persecutors. For My angel shall go before you and bring you to the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Canaanite, the Hivvite, and the Jebusite, and I will annihilate them. Do not prostrate yourself to their gods, do not worship them, and do not act according to their practices; rather, you shall tear them apart, and you shall smash their pillars…

I shall make all your enemies turn the back of the neck to you. I shall send the hornet-swarm before you and it will drive away the Hivvite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite before you. I shall not drive them away from you in a single year, lest the Land become desolate and the wildlife of the field multiply against you. Little by little shall I drive them away from you, until you become fruitful and make the Land your heritage.’” 

Jews believe God created the world to bestow the Torah and kick-start humanity’s social evolution. God didn’t need to deliver the Torah to the Jews specifically; in fact, Jewish custom states God offered it to every other nation first, and the Jews were the only ones to accept. 


If God required Jews to accept the Torah, then Jews weren’t obligated to accept the violent mechanism by which they took possession of the land. 


If God required Jews to accept the Torah, then Jews weren’t obligated to accept the violent mechanism by which they took possession of the land.

When God asked if they consented to the covenant, it would’ve been entirely within their rights to say, “We’re happy to follow the rules, but the annihilation part seems a bit much. We’d rather not be a part of it because this land already belongs to someone else. Can’t we find another land? The world is big - there’s plenty of land to go around.” 


This option would have allowed them to accept the Torah while rejecting violence and dispossession. Nothing in the spoken contract or God’s language implied violence was non-negotiable other than obeying the Torah's commandments. 


Is it realistic to expect a primitive society to eschew violence at the risk of forfeiting its reward? No. I’m bringing this up because the dynamic still occurs now. We might be tempted to look at this instance and think one of two things: “They had no choice,” or “How could they have done it?” 


Neither option captures the whole story. Humanity was still primitive at this time, and the Israelites made the same choice most people would have made at this point in history. At the same time, they still had other options. We can handle the dissonance of holding both truths simultaneously. 


We live in a different situation today. When people commit an immoral act, they often use the excuse, “I had no choice,” but this is rarely true. More likely, they had difficult choices or choices demanding immense personal sacrifice. 


When Jews say they’ve had a claim on the land for thousands of years, it’s important to understand that even the original claim was one formed through violent dispossession. The Canaanites mentioned by the Torah are Palestinians. 


When Jews say they’ve had a claim on the land for thousands of years, it’s important to understand that even the original claim was one formed through violent dispossession.

I feel conflicted when I address these topics because antisemitism is very real and ugly. But just as I acknowledge the truth of antisemitism, I must also recognize the reality of Jewish history. 


God told the Israelites He would drive out the land’s existing inhabitants little by little. He claimed His motivation was to ensure the land remained fruitful, but it also carried a sizable secondary effect: it repeatedly forced the Israelites to confront the consequences of their choice. Would they still accept the violence if they saw it, day in and day out, for a year? 


Turns out, the answer was yes. We can’t pass judgment on the actions of ancient Israel during a time when humans were primitive. However, we can certainly evaluate the morality of their actions today.


*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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