This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Zachary Ottenstein
The first five parshiyot of Sefer Shmot primarily chronicle the relationship between G-d and man. The relationship is framed narratively, by way of G-d’s redemption of Israel, and concretized ritually in the form of Pesach, Rosh Chodesh, and the Sabbath. Parshat Mishpatim begins a new theme: G-d’s concern for how people interact among themselves. Why is this Parshah placed here?
The late 19th/early 20th century commentator R’ David Zvi Hoffman additionally asked a simple but deep question. Just as G-d legislated the contours of His relationship to human beings, why shouldn’t human beings legislate the laws that govern relationships among themselves? This question is all the more relevant today, when most Jews live in democratic countries and theocracies are few and despised.
R. Hoffman answers that by placing interpersonal laws here, the Torah is trying to preempt the idea that mitzvot bein adam lamakom and mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro are separable categories. Many of the mitzvot traditionally associated with bein adam l’chaveiro in fact have a strong element of G-dliness reinforcing them, and a godless society will be unethical.
G-d’s concern for interpersonal interactions was a Jewish innovation. As pointed out by scholars of the Ancient Near East and great Jewish thinkers such as R’ Umberto Cassutto and R’ Amnon Bazak, the Code of Hammurabi and other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes legislate against similar offenses as the Torah does, but nonetheless a clear difference in outlook is apparent on close examination. For example, Exodus 22:25-26 commands us against holding a garment taken as collateral overnight “because it is his only garment and in what will he sleep? And he will cry out to me and I will hear him because I am merciful,“ whereas Law 117 of the Hammurabi Code  permits a man to sell himself, his wife or even his children as slaves should he be unable to pay his debt. In another somewhat ironic example, Leviticus 20:12 prescribes the death penalty for adultery. The Code of Hammurabi also bans adultery, but with a crucial difference (Law 129): the husband may pardon his wife for her offense and allow her to live. This caveat is not found in Jewish law, as adultery is not just an offense toward another person, but an attack on the sanctity of marriage as ordained by G-d.
Interpersonal relations and their divine nature reach a high point when discussing the laws of slavery. While the basic commandments as to how a slave must be treated come from the opening verses of this week’s sedrah (Exodus 21:1-7), a deep insight can be gleaned from Jeremiah 34, which features G-d’s rebuke to the Jewish people for their mistreatment of their slaves. Already in the second verse of the chapter it is known to Jeremiah and King Zedekiah that Jerusalem will not survive war with Nebuchadnezzar and will be delivered into his hands. Six verses later, seemingly out of nowhere, Zedekiah mandates that all of the Judahites set free their Hebrew slaves. While Zedekiah’s record was tarnished by various other activities (Kings II 24:19-20), it is difficult not to admire him for this act of righteousness and moral leadership in a time of chaos. In verse 14, G-d reminds Yirmiyahu of the laws of slaves found in Parshat Mishpatim and chastises the people for retaking their fellow man as a slave after already freeing him. He subsequently tells the prophet that because they failed to extend liberty to their fellow man, that “liberty” will be extended to them to be conquered and destroyed by their enemies.
While the contrast between specific Near Eastern and Jewish laws conveys the fundamental ethical shift that came to the world via Judaism, it is the narrative in Jeremiah that highlights the need of the Jewish people to be uncompromising in their ethics and morals even at times of literal and metaphorical churban. Destruction and exile stared Zedekiah in the face, but he still devoted his energies to fighting the fight of the oppressed even if there was no hope that this would cause a reversal of G-d’s will. Jewish children are taught from infancy that the First Temple was destroyed because of avodah zarah, but it must be stated that the crumbling of human morality that was happening simultaneously angered G-d to a similar degree. Pagan idolatry is no longer a pressing issue for the Jewish people, but there is always room for improvement in our ethics as a community and as individuals. If we are to want and to expect the betterment of our interpersonal behavior, the divine nature of these commandments cannot be overstated enough.
 Commentary of R’ D.Z Hoffmann to Exodus 21:1. https://mg.alhatorah.org/Full/Shemot/21.1#e0n6
 Bazak, Amnon. “Shiur #08b: Tanakh and Literature of the Ancient Near East.” Shiur #08b: Tanakh and Literature of the Ancient Near East, Yeshivat Har Etzion, 1 Dec. 2014, www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-08b-tanakh-and-literature-ancient-near-east.
 All translations of biblical verses are my own in consultation with the 1917 JPS Translation found at www.mechon-mamre.org
 All references to the Code of Hammurabi made in consultation with the Marquette University translation. http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Assyria/Hammurabi.html#Introduction
 BT Yoma 9a
Zachary Ottenstein (SBM ’18) is a sophomore at Yeshiva University majoring in History and Bible.