Parshat Mishpatim: Representing Godliness

Shoshana Chanales

Shoshana Chanales (Midreshet Lindenbaum Overseas Program 2000-2002) teaches Tanakh and Jewish philosophy at Yeshivat Frisch.

Following the revelation at Har Sinai and the aseret hadibrot (Ten Commandments), Parshat Mishpatim takes a different turn in commandments. While there is much discussion about the structure and sequence of the laws included in Mishpatim, the majority of the laws involve the establishment of a just society. This includes the laws of eved ivri (Jewish slave) and a large section of tort laws, the consequences of a person or his property causing damages. In this discussion, the Torah instructs how to judge, convict, and punish civil crimes.
In the course of describing these cases, there are a few instances in which the term אלהים / Elokim is used ambiguously. It is unclear whether the term אלהים / Elohim is referring to God, in the more frequent traditional usage of the word, or referring to human judges as would make sense in the context of Mishpatim.
In talking about an eved ivri, a Jewish slave, who wants to remain with his master, it says:

וְהִגִּישׁ֤וֹ אֲדֹנָיו֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהִגִּישׁוֹ֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֔לֶת א֖וֹ אֶל־הַמְּזוּזָ֑ה וְרָצַ֨ע אֲדֹנָ֤יו אֶת־אׇזְנוֹ֙ בַּמַּרְצֵ֔עַ וַעֲבָד֖וֹ לְעֹלָֽם (שמות, כא:ו)

then his master shall bring him to Elohim, and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever.

Later on, the Torah makes a general statement regarding theft claiming:

 עַֽל־כׇּל־דְּבַר־פֶּ֡שַׁע עַל־שׁ֡וֹר עַל־חֲ֠מ֠וֹר עַל־שֶׂ֨ה עַל־שַׂלְמָ֜ה עַל־כׇּל־אֲבֵדָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֹאמַר֙ כִּי־ה֣וּא זֶ֔ה עַ֚ד הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים יָבֹ֖א דְּבַר־שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יַרְשִׁיעֻן֙ אֱלֹהִ֔ים יְשַׁלֵּ֥ם שְׁנַ֖יִם לְרֵעֵֽהוּ (שמות כב:ח)

For every matter of trespass, whether it be for ox, for donkey, for sheep, for clothing, or for any kind of lost thing, about which one says, ‘This is mine,’ the cause of both parties shall come before Elohim. He whom Elohim condemns shall pay double to his neighbor.

And states a prohibition:

אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א תְקַלֵּ֑ל וְנָשִׂ֥יא בְעַמְּךָ֖ לֹ֥א תָאֹֽר (שמות כב:כז)

You shall not blaspheme Elohim, nor curse a ruler of your people.

  All three of these verses can be understood to either be talking about Elohim as God or as the judges in the beit din. Rashi, in explaining the case of a master bringing his slave to the “Elohim”, quotes Mechilita D’Rabbi Yishmael that Elohim is beit din, the judges. Since the judges of the beit din are the ones who sold the eved ivri into slavery, it only makes sense that he should be brought before them again to impact his slave status.
In each of the cases explained above, there are commentators who explain the term Elohim as human judges and prove why it must be talking about beit din and not God. These explanations, though, still beg the question: why is a term, predominantly used to refer to God or gods, used to describe judges? What does it tell us about the role of judges in a Torah society?
The Ibn Ezra (שמות כא:ו) explains מלת אלהים כמו מקימי משפט אלהים בארץ – that the word Elohim is used because the judges are the ones implementing the Godly law on Earth. In this way, the judges are Elohim because they represent Elohim, God. As implementers of God’s justice, the judges must try to emulate God, to follow out His will. This aspect of Elohim elevates judges as they are fulfilling the command of והלכת בדרכיו, imitatio dei, following in God’s ways. God is the ultimate representation of justice, and the judges, in place of God on Earth, attempt to act as Elohim, in a just way.
There is another, almost opposite, way of understanding why the term Elohim describes judges. The beit din are not the ultimate judges, but rather, Elohim, God is. As Yaakov proclaims to Rachel when she demands sons from him,  הֲתַ֤חַת אֱלֹהִים֙ אָנֹ֔כִי אֲשֶׁר־מָנַ֥ע מִמֵּ֖ךְ פְּרִי־בָֽטֶן, Am I in Elohim’s place, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb? (בראשית ל:ב).  Yaakov is angered by the notion that Rachel assumes he can act as Elohim.
This notion of humans being incapable of replacing God as the ultimate judge, follows in the Talmudic discussions involving courts exacting punishment. If we look at the way that the amoraim in the gemara extrapolate the halacha based on Parshat Mishpatim, they add on requirements that make conviction in capital punishment cases exceptionally difficult. In addition to two witnesses, the accused must also be warned by both witnesses before committing the crime. And in the famous mishna at the end of the first chapter of Makkot, we are told that a סנהדרין that convicts and kills once a week is considered destructive. Rabbi Eliezer goes even further and says that he believes a סנהדרין that kills once every 70 years is considered destructive. And Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon make the bold statement that if they were running the Sanhedrin, they would never kill any person.

רַבִּי אֶלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אֶחָד לְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה. רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן וְרַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמְרִים: אִילּוּ הָיִינוּ בַּסַּנְהְֶדרִין, לֹא נֶהֱרַג אָדָם מֵעוֹלָם.

Even though the Torah lists the crimes that deserve capital punishment, the Rabbis are still uncomfortable implementing the Torah rule. These restrictions and limitations interpreted by Chazal, can only exist in a system in which they believe that there IS ultimate punishment for a guilty person. Since God, as Elohim, will punish whoever deserves it when human judges do not, we want to be completely sure when the beit din does kill.
These two approaches to Elohim describing judges either as representing God or limited by God, represent the dual nature of our human existence. On the one hand, humanity is about being b’tzelem elokim, bringing God’s will and justice into the world. On the other, we are עפר אתה ואל עפר תשוב, mere dust, aware of our many limitations, how flawed we are and that God is the ultimate judge.
Toeing the line between these two aspects of our existence is what our life is about and has been amplified over the last year. We have the power to save lives, create a vaccine that will hopefully end a worldwide pandemic in under a year, and so many other scientific and technological advances that give rise to the phrase “god complex.” And yet life still throws us constant curveballs, showing us in both large and small ways that we are not, in fact, ever in control. Staying rooted in the understanding that there are no true judges on this earth and that we are ultimately reliant on God is our lifeline for both the hopelessness that comes from no control, and the antidote to too much control.

Shabbat Shalom!


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