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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Mishpatim                          February 22, 2020 - 27 Shevat 5780

02/19/2020 03:42:16 PM


Language is a funny thing.  I speak four languages (English, Hebrew, French, and Spanish) to varying degrees of fluency. And I’ve learned that language is a funny thing, especially when translating from one language to another when idioms or oxymorons are involved.  An oxymoron is a figure of speech containing words that seem to contradict each other.  It's often referred to as a contradiction in terms.  As with other rhetorical devices, we tend to use oxymorons for a variety of purposes.  Sometimes they're used to create a little bit of drama for the reader; sometimes they're used to make a person stop and think, whether that's to laugh or to wonder.  One of the most famous of oxymorons is “military intelligence;” another is “jumbo shrimp.”  Here’s a couple of others to think about: “act naturally,” “bittersweet,” “clearly confused,” “deafening silence,” “growing smaller,” “random order,” “small crowd,” “true myth,” and “walking dead.”  A common oxymoron is the phrase "the same difference."  This phrase qualifies as an oxymoron because the words "same" and "difference" have opposite meanings.  Bringing them together into one phrase produces a verbally puzzling, yet engaging, effect.

For us as Jews, the literal word is not the final word in understanding Torah.  The Judaism we celebrate today is largely the product of the ancient rabbis of the first centuries CE.  In transforming Judaism from a biblical to a modern tradition, they introduced a method for making Torah relevant to generations present and future.  Their methodology of Torah study can be simplified into four levels: P’shat-first understand the “literal meaning” of the verse (What the author intended); Drash-then interpret the text (what the reader understands the meaning to be), third, Remez-discover the homiletical/moral lesson learned from this verse (the philosophical underpinnings) and finally, Sod-pursue the hidden, mystical meaning.

By means of these four levels of understanding, the ancient rabbis empowered every generation with the authority to interpret the meaning of Torah in their times.  They also made clear that the Torah is a God-inspired document.  As mere mortals, we cannot hope to completely understand the reasoning or moral underpinning of every verse (thus, the notion of Sod/hidden meaning).

This week’s Torah portion contains two good examples of rabbinic method. The famous principle of lex talionis (“law of retaliation”) is stated in Exo. 21:24-25, “…Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot, burn for a burn, wound for a wound, bruise for a bruise.”  There is no doubt in the context of biblical times these verses were meant to be understood literally.  Their origin is attributed to King Hamurabi of Babylonia in the 18th century BCE.  However, later rabbinic literature never understood it this way.  The Talmud understands "an eye for an eye" as meaning that someone who damages an eye must pay the value of that eye.  An eye's worth for an eye.  The Drash (interpretive meaning) and Remez (moral lesson) become as important as the P’shat (literal meaning) in understanding this portion of Torah.

Rabbi Howard Siegel (20th Century, USA) provides us with another example in Exo. 22:17, where it is written “You shall not let a sorceress (witch) live.”  This verse, understood literally, became the basis for executing innocent women in 17th century Salem Massachusetts. However, already by the 2nd century CE the ancient rabbis understood this verse to mean “you shall not provide a witch with a livelihood.”  Today, the Wiccan religion-the modern religious practice of witchcraft-bears no semblance to the ancient taboos addressed by the Torah.  This verse requires a re-interpretation and understanding in our own day.

By placing Torah at the center of Jewish practice, we recognize the centrality of God’s presence and the never-ending evolution of God’s word through human interpretation.  In this way, Revelation is a partnership between the human and Divine.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, October 22 2020 4 Cheshvan 5781