One of my father’s favorite phrases was “It depends on whose ox is being gored.” He said it whenever we were “discussing” a topic. It was his way of making us consider the issue from someone else’s perspective. Ever the judge, he wanted us to know there’s always another side to a situation.
Mishpatim, (Laws) this week’s parasha, spends a whole lot of time on oxen. A lot of time. You would think that was odd, right after the powerful experience of receiving the Torah, the Ten Commandments last week in Yitro. Those Ten Commandments – They were lofty thoughts, and right away, we’re talking oxen?
“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 [and this is a big if], however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner though warned, has failed to guard it and it kills a man or woman…”, then the ox is toast and so is the owner. (Ex 21:28) Or, to put it another way, if out of nowhere, your dog attacks your neighbor, the dog is punished, but you’re not. But, if this dog has caused trouble before, and you haven’t taken measures to keep that dog reined in, then both you and your dog are at fault if it causes damage.
From high on the mountain, to a lowly ox. Or dog. An Israelite could get whiplash from that kind of transition! So why ruin the mood of Sinai with such mundane rules? Couldn’t they just bask in the glow for a little longer?
The truth is, no. We don’t live on the Mountain, in the glow, in the ecstatic moments of Sinai. We live in the world where oxen and dogs go wild and do damage. We live where neighbors let their livestock run amok on your property. We live in the world where people have to go into debt, and there are rules about keeping the dignity of the debtor…in fact, these rules are right in Mishpatim (“If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing…in what shall he sleep?” Ex 22:25-26) Don’t humiliate the person just because s/he owes you money.
These ideas are totally out of context, if you think about it. At this point in the story, no one owns anything, certainly not land. There are no towns where people borrow money to build houses or businesses. There’s no need for realtor rules and tort laws. They’re wandering in the wilderness; of what possible use is it to hear this stuff now?
This is the message of Mishpatim: You won’t be here in the wilderness forever. You’re going to settle down at some point and build a society. And you need to know now what’s important. This glorious gift of Torah will show you. Mishpatim is the bullet points of a just society, something the Israelites had not experienced. Slavery took them away from justice, away from being in charge of their own communal power. Since they were so recently out of Egypt, they needed to be taught step-by-step how to build a community based on human dignity and respect. Mishpatim gets right to it, all the while telling the Israelites to keep God in mind, keep God and Torah as the reason to do it up right.
Every once in a while, it’s nice to go back to the Mountain, feel the joy and power of that moment. But that was God and Moses’ reality. Our reality is to bring a bit of the Mountain down to us and infuse our daily interactions with it.