Mishpatim – the first statute book of Israel – might sound like heavy reading, but is surprisingly varied, and concise enough not to lose a lay reader’s attention.
Starting with Hebrew slaves, the list proceeds through interpersonal conduct and moves on to moral sexual behaviours and duties to God. Areas such as how to behave towards one’s enemy are also looked at.
Elements of how to treat terrorists, prisoners in detention and their families fall under this heading; human rights are relevant even to those who have abused others, even ourselves, and those rights emanate from our responsibilities to them.
Macro-issues of how to run a humane economy and refrain from abuse of system are treated, followed by sustainable land cultivation and husbandry. It is remarkable that such details are tackled in a desert, but the Israelites were neither ignorant of agriculture, nor planning to stay longer than two years in the desert.
The statute roll concludes with a reminder that Hebrew practices are not merely a cultural phenomenon, but part of code of loyalty to one God. Setting the statutes into practice is achieved by calendarising festivals, and they are summarised near the end of this week’s reading.
God then sends an angel to guard the Israelites. Perhaps with so many social and legal practices to integrate, the Israelites cannot devote all their time to watching out for themselves and need some help against their enemies.
The last section relates how the young Israelites celebrated the Sinai revelation, fully viewing God’s presence. Thereafter, Moshe ascended Sinai and remained there 40 days and nights. But the celebratory ending is a lining at the edge of a dark cloud that presages the cult of the Golden Calf.
ω Ariel Abel is chaplain to HM Forces and rabbi of Liverpool Princes Road Synagogue