Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
“Our Highest Spiritual Principles”
When a person’s ox injures a 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, that person must restore ox for ox, and [the neighbor] shall keep the dead animal. (Exod. 21:35-36)
These verses follow the chapter containing the Revelation at Sinai and are part of what the rabbis call the Book of the Covenant, detailing the first rules derived from the Ten Commandments. Taken at the literal level, these rules may appear antiquated and no longer relevant to our post-modern lives—who among us owns an ox anymore?—but at a deeper level they are far more than simple rules and legislations.
Take our first verse, for example, and transpose it into 21st-century concept. When a corporation (call it BP for argument’s sake) injures/pollutes a neighboring ecosystem by accident, the corporation shall compensate that country financially by paying out half the clean-up costs. Going further with the second verse, if it is known that the said corporation was in the habit of polluting (our rabbis call for two prior instances) and its owners had failed to take appropriate action to prevent another accident, that corporation must pay all the cleanup costs to restore the polluted area to its pristine state.
The same goes for peoples’ behavior.
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned…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, though 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. (Exod. 21:28-29)
To bring up a not-so-distant example: When a university coach abuses a neighbor’s son, the coach shall be punished to the full extent of the law, but his superior is not to be punished. If, however, that coach had been in the habit of abusing young boys for many years, and his superior, though aware, has failed to restrain him, the coach is to be punished to the full extent of the law and so is his superior. Our headlines seem to bring us more examples of the “ox that gores” story every day in the public sphere and in our neighborhoods, in our schools, our workplaces, and our spaces of worship. Yet we fail, time and again, to uphold the basic Torah principles that we have known for 3,000 years. Why is that?
Perhaps because we have come to see Torah as the repository of cruel laws from a vengeful God, we are no longer able to appreciate the depth of its universal message. Here, however, the Torah is inviting us to combat such destructive human behavior by creating a healthy moral climate based on universal spiritual principles, wherein such actions would not be tolerated. Being openhearted, forgiving, and accepting does not mean that we forgo holding people accountable, or that we shy away from taking a stand. The opposite is true. It means that we stand firm on principles of justice, fairness, and personal responsibility. The Book of the Covenant highlights those spiritual principles that support our creating the kind of world that would mirror the Divine attributes of Justice (Din), and Compassion (Chesed), rooted in a clear understanding of the fundamental universal laws that govern creation. These verses speak of how we are to live in each other’s company from an ethical, just, respectful, and inclusive place, in a society that would embody our highest spiritual aspirations.