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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Mishpatim

Parashat Mishpatim

Shevat 27, 5780 – February 22, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18, Exodus 30:11 – 30:16

Haftarah: Kings II 11:17 – 12:17

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Mishpatim, which in Hebrew is a technical term for “laws” or “judgements” that refer to social legislation. This Torah portion actually begins with a civil law concerning a Jewish bondsman – a Hebrew slave who was sold into slavery because he was a thief. Ramban comments that this law is an extension of the Tenth Commandment (which prohibits coveting), because in order to know what not to covet, “one must know the rights and property of others.”[1] Rashi also indicates that the connection is evident in the grammar, as the opening line of the parashah – (וְאֵ֨לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים) “and these are the ordinances” (21:1) – begins with the conjunction and, which is indication that this parashah and the previous one have a direct relationship.[2] But this doesn’t take away from the fact that this week’s reading stands in stark contrast to last week’s Torah portion (Parashat Yitro) – which details the intense and wondrous Sinaitic Revelation. The Sages teach that this seemingly abrupt transition, from the Revelation at Sinai to laws regarding civil and tort law, serves to demonstrate that “all areas of life are interrelated” and that holiness is derived from correct behavior within the realms of ritual and everyday business.[3] In the Mechilta we read that Mishpatimwere given at Sinai, as the Torah was given at Sinai.[4] It also demonstrates the importance of engaging spiritual experience with something material – any significant variety of revelation that is to be useful, must be translated into something tangible.[5] Divine disclosure is a transient phenomenon, and the insight and motivations gleaned from such an experience must be concretized into something material if the spiritual experience is to be preserved. Parashat Mishpatim is an expression of this principle as G-d enacts a series of laws for the people of Israel.

In addition to laws of servitude, Parashat Mishpatim introduces laws concerning murder and manslaughter, the penalties for bodily injury, kidnapping, theft, damages caused by animals and the consequence to the owners, and the Laws of Shomrim – these are the “laws of people who are entrusted to safeguard someone else’s property.”[6] In Hebrew, a shomer is a ‘guardian’ and this Torah portion classifies four types of guardians and their respective responsibilities. For obvious reasons, they are entitled as the “Four Guardians”[7] and they are: the unpaid guardian, the paid guardian, the borrower, and the renter. Much of this parashah revolves around respect for people’s property, and how to dispense of justice fairly and equally – in (22:24) we get the famous “eye for an eye” passage, which the Talmud (Bava Kamma83b – 84a) stresses is about financial compensation and paying for restitution of damages – it’s not about physical retaliation, which is the common misconception. There are also laws pertaining to the granting of free loans, sensitivity to the financially unfortunate, and laws against mistreating a stranger – something that the commentators note refers to a convert, but also extends to any foreigner who is a newcomer to a new place (even a fellow Jew).[8] All in all, this parashah contains 53 mitzvot, including the mitzvah of prayer and the somewhat esoteric commandment to not consume milk with meat. Observance of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – are also outlined, which are said to symbolize three, essential concepts that are at the core of human existence and happiness: freedom, the seasons, and prosperity.[9] The Sabbaths of the land and of the week are also defined (in Hebrew, the sabbatical year is known as Shemittah), which have great ecological significance and will (I’m sure) be addressed in more detail once we get to the Book of Leviticus and Parashat Behar. G-d then promises Moshe that the Jews will be led swiftly into Eretz Yisrael. And the parashah concludes with Moshe ascending Mount Sinai again, where he spends the next forty days and nights receiving the Torah.

In (24:7) we read: “[Moshe] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will hear!’”[10] In the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) we read: “When the people of Israel gave precedence to ‘we will do’ over ‘we will hear,’ a heavenly voice exclaimed: ‘Who revealed to My children this secret…?’” This encapsulates a significant concept within Judaism, which is essentially about doing something before understanding. This doesn’t mean that we should blindly jump into action, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to fully comprehend it either. An example often used is that even if a person makes all the mental preparations for the performance of a mitzvah, but doesn’t perform it, then the commandment is not fulfilled.[11] In Western society, we so much want to understand something before we do it, yet sometimes this hinders our action. And this can be confusing in a time when we are faced with a continuous flood of information – from social media or the news – which can make it difficult to make a decision about how to act. Parashat Mishpatim begins with the line: “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” The Rabbis have given several explanations for why the phrase “before them” is paired with mishpatim, and the Alter Rebbe gives an interesting answer: “That ‘before them’ means to [our] innermost selves…[and that] the knowledge of G-d should enter the most inward reaches of the soul.”[12] In the Torah, there are three kinds of law: statutes (which transcend our understanding), testimonies (which can be rationally explained, but wouldn’t have been conceived rationally), and judgements – i.e. mishpatim – (which are laws that human reason would had to have created, even if they weren’t Divinely revealed).[13] The point here is to emphasize that “even judgements, which can be obeyed for the sake of reason, must be obeyed from the inwardness of the soul.”[14] I do believe that we must approach our environmental action in a similar way. We may understand, conceptually, that certain actions are positive for the planet, but if we don’t support that action with our innermost heart, then we just become robots. The future of the world, and of sustainable action, depends on our ability to feel for change within our hearts and to follow the dictums guided by natural law. The Torah teaches us that every legal dispute must be brought before a court of law – a court that is called Elohim, which is a word that means G-d.[15] In a sense, mishpatim and rational judgements, are very much about obeying the laws of nature and partnering ourselves to Creation.[16] They are the ordinances that keep us from destroying the world, from destroying ourselves, and from destroying nature – which is property that belongs to G-d.

Parashat Mishpatim is – as previously discussed – filled with the laws of borrowing and respect for other people’s property. But what does this mean for the earth – for earth’s property? There are two ways to answer this question. The first is to address the laws of the four prototypes of damages, knows as “the Animal, the Pit, the Man, and the Fire.” For example, in (21:33-34) we read about the pit: “If a man shall uncover a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit and not cover it, and an ox or a donkey fall into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution.” In other words, “it is forbidden to leave a dangerous condition in public space.”[17] The same is true of “the fire,” which refers to damages that result from a hazardous situation that spreads out of control, and is not contained by the person responsible. Take, for instances, industries such as mining or fracking that are very much digging literal ‘pits’ which can create sinkholes or even induce earthquakes that negatively impact the surrounding area. But the effects of such practices can also mirror damages related to ‘the fire’, such as when the water table becomes contaminated, or the neighboring ecosystem is harmed, from toxic chemicals that are released during drilling procedures and dissipate beyond the site.[18] Rachel Carson shed a little light on this topic as well in the early 1960’s, with the publication of her book Silent Spring, which addressed the extensive use of pesticides in industrial agriculture. The effects of such industrial practices extend beyond the environmental, disturbing the health of various communities. This is also evidenced by the use of corexit, a chemical dispersant used during the clean up of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred in 2010, and has been proved to have devastating health effects on people exposed to the chemical.[19] The fossil fuel industry and multinational mining companies have a notoriously long history of upending native populations, and splitting families apart, causing incalculable, psychological damages. Every country, and every continent, in the world probably has some history related to the prototype of damages as described in this Torah portion. It is a powerful aspect of halakhic Judaism for the modern age – for the Industrial Age.

The second way to address the question of the earth’s property is to distinguish between two Hebrew synonyms for creation: beri’ah and yetzirah.[20] There’s an argument found in the Talmud (Bava Kama 98a), premised by this question: If an owner of raw materials gives those materials to an artisan, and the artisan then fashions those raw materials into a finished product and breaks that said product – is the artisan obligated to compensate the owner for the value of the raw materials or the finished product? In short, the artisan is paid by the owner to improve upon the material and to protect that material once it has been transformed into a finished product – the artisan is a paid guardian. The artisan has a legal responsibility to protect the finished product, and if it is broken by the paid guardian, they must compensate the original owner for the value of the completed product. Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote an excellent article on this piece of Talmud, and places it within the context of humans as paid guardians – so to speak – of nature. The word beri’ah refers to creatio ex nihilo – a theological term referring to the notion that G-d created something out of nothing. This is not a variety of creation, or a type of creative act, that we (as humans) participated in or are capable of producing. Beri’ah is reserved for G-d. Yetzirah, on the other hand, is used to describe a creative act that stems from a preexisting substance. We are invited, as co-creators with G-d, to involve ourselves in the ongoing process of yetzirah. This is a significant ecological point to make, because it concerns the command to “fill the earth and subdue it” – a passage from Genesis 1:28 that has been the source of many ideologies that have been environmentally destructive. It has even been used to justify industrial farming practices, for example, and widespread agriculture. But we, as paid guardians, as artisans, do not have ownership over our own creations – because we are incapable of beri’ah we are held accountable for how we handle the raw materials of life – nature included! We are commissioned to build upon, improve, transform, and better the world – not destroy it. And even if we perfect the world, whatever that means, it still doesn’t belong to us. That position is reserved for G-d.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: What it means to be a ‘paid guardian’ of the earth, four prototypes of damages as they relate to the earth’s property, beri’ah and yetzirah


Colborn, Theo, Carol Kwiatkowski, Kim Schultz, and Mary Bachran. "Natural gas operations from a public health perspective." Human and ecological risk assessment: An International Journal 17, no. 5 (2011): 1039-1056.

Lamm, Rabbi Norman. “Parashat Mishpatim: Ownership and Responsibility: Humans as Co-creators and Co-owners.” As sourced from:[5]

Lauterbach, Jacob Z. Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael (JPS Classic Reissues). Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan; form the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “Torah Studies: Mishpatim.” Published and copyrighted by Kehot Publication Society. As sourced from:

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).


  1. [1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.416 [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.417 also in the Mechilta [3]“In Judaism, the concept of the ‘temple’ is in the courtroom as well as the in the synagogue. This is the significance of the juxtaposition of chapters...The Talmud teaches that one who wishes to become a religiously devout person should be careful regarding the laws of damages (Bava Kamma 30a). One who is negligent with someone else’s property is as irreligious as someone who is negligent in Sabbath or kashruth observance.” (Scherman, p.416) [4]R. Ishmael says: “These are added to the preceding ones. Just as those preceding were given from Sinai, so also those following were given from Sinai.” (Lauterbach, Mekhilta, Vol 2 p.355) [5]Miller, Torah in Ten [6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.427 [7] [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.431 [9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.436 [10]The Stone edition uses the word “obey” instead of “hear” but the word is ונשמע from shema (שמע), meaning “listen” or “hear.” [11]Rabbi Sacks, “Torah Studies: Mishpatim” [12]Rabbi Sacks, “Torah Studies: Mishpatim” [13]Rabbi Sacks, “Torah Studies: Mishpatim” – Examples of testimonies (Heb: edut) are Shabbat and the festivals, and statutes (Heb: chukim) [14]Rabbi Sacks, “Torah Studies: Mishpatim” [15] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.419 [16]As discussed in a previous commentary, Elohim – a name for G-d used in relation to divine judgement – numerically corresponds to ha-tevameaning “the nature.” Additionally: “The court is called Elohim, a word that means G-d, because the court carries out G-d’s law on earth (Ibn Ezra).” (Scherman, p.419)…“A judge who rules correctly is considered a partner in Creation, and one who rules corruptly is a destroyer of G-d’s world.” (Scherman, p.416) [17] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.425 [18] Colborn et al., "Natural gas operations from a public health perspective." [19]See the documentary film, The Cost of Silence, which premiered at Sundance in January 2020 [20]The following discussion is sourced from an article written by Rabbi Norman Lamm, titled: “Parashat Mishpatim: Ownership and Responsibility: Humans as Co-creators and Co-owners.”

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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