TORAH FOR THE NATIONS
The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
The Sinaitic Covenant
The narrative of the event known as the Giving of the Torah - when all the people of Israel stood at Mount Sinai, heard the voice of HaShem and undertook to observe all His commandments - is spread over two Torah portions: the previous portion of Yitro and our present portion of Mishpatim .
In Yitro , Exodus chapter 19 told of the assembly of the Children of Israel at the foot of Sinai and of Moses' ascent to the summit of the mountain, while chapter 20 set forth the 10 Commandments, describing the awesome and literally earth-shaking experience when they were revealed.
Then in our present portion of Mishpatim , chapters 21-23 - which make up the greater part of the portion - set forth a multitude of very detailed laws for the Children of Israel, after which the closing section of our portion, Exodus chapter 24, reverts to the narrative of the Giving of the Torah, telling how Moses struck a formal Covenant between God and the Children of Israel to observe this code of law.
The sandwiching of the detailed laws contained in Exodus chapters 21-23 in between the narrative of the Giving of the Torah contained in Yitro chapter 19 and the narrative in Mishpatim chapter 24, indicates that these detailed laws are no less integral to the Sinaitic Code than the Ten Commandments. Further exposition of all these laws and their ramifications is contained in the other legal sections of the Five Books of Moses, and especially in Leviticus 19-20 and Deuteronomy chapters 12-25.
While the 613 Commandments of the Torah are mandatory only for Israel , the Sinaitic Covenant is of great importance for all peoples and nations, because proper understanding of God's laws for all the nations - the Seven Universal Noahide Commandments - depends upon proper understanding of His laws for Israel . This is because the Seven Universal Laws are the roots of the entire Torah, and all of the 613 Commandments that apply to Israel stem from these roots. Thus the details of the 613 Commandments shed great light on how the general laws of the Noahide Code are to be applied in practice.
Among the detailed commandments in our present portion of Mishpatim there are many that have a direct bearing on the practical application of the Noahide laws prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incest, robbery and cruelty to animals as well as the institution of courts of law.
Thus Exodus 21:12-14 differentiates between intentional murder and unintentional manslaughter, which relates to the Noahide prohibition of killing; verses 18-36 enter into the details of the laws of various kinds of damages to person and property, which relate to the Noahide provision for a system of justice. Exodus 21:37-22:14 deals with the detailed laws of theft, which are bound up with the Noahide prohibition of theft; Exodus chapter 23 verses 1-3 and 7-9 relate to legal procedure in courts of law, and so on.
The correct interpretation of the Divine Writ according to a system of exegetical rules has been a labor of love of Torah scholars for thousands of years, and many thick volumes of Talmudic discussion together with an enormous literature of commentaries and legal decisions are devoted to establishing the fine details of all of these laws and how they are to be applied in practical cases in all their variety in actual life.
One of the great challenges facing today's Torah scholars is to define in detail how the Seven Noahide Laws are to be applied today in practical contemporary cases in the light of the relevant laws in the Sinaitic code. This process has now begun as a number of Rabbis under the auspices of the renewed Sanhedrin in Jerusalem are addressing numerous questions being received from growing numbers of gentiles who seriously seek to observe the Noahide laws in the proper way.
Intricate legal issues can only be adjudicated by trained legal minds, and the general student cannot expect to be able to determine matters of Torah law on his or her own without expert guidance.
Nevertheless the Five Books of Moses are available to all the world in translations into many different languages, and some of the classical rabbinical commentaries are also available in English, French, Spanish, Russian etc. This means that gentiles may also study these works and gain insights into the meaning and application of the Seven Noahide Laws from seeing how the Torah teaches about their extrapolation in the 613 Commandments that apply to Israel .
Historically, one of the criticisms directed by some against the Torah pathway was that it consists of too many detailed rules and restrictions that inhibit the instinctive love and passion with which we should serve God. Ironically, the modern world - which has to a large extent thrown off the yoke of religious law and observance - suffers from an endless proliferation of governmental and other regulations and restrictions in every sphere of life down to the most intimate.
The promise of the Sinaitic Code is to give inner freedom and liberation to those who take upon themselves the service of God. Likewise submission to the supreme power of God through embrace of the Noahide Code elevates the righteous of the nations above subordinate powers.
The desire to obey and fulfill God's law is nurtured through regular study of the scriptures and derivative works, each on his or her level. For the more we become familiar with its details and the deeper our understanding of its intent and great wisdom, the stronger our love becomes.
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