From "Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law" by Rembrandt
From "Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law" by Rembrandt

Even for newly liberated Israelites, freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 21:1–24:18

The Torah portion Mishpatim (or “Laws”) occurs immediately after Moses receives, and then transmits, the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. It is a seminal and powerful moment in the lives of the Israelites, and it comes suddenly.

After all the drama of the Sinai revelation — the thunder, the lightning and the blasts of the ram’s horn — our ancestors must have surely been in a state of awe, and perhaps even one of shock, after having gone through such an experience.

And yet now, with this parashah, there is more to come, more rules to absorb.

Much more. Mishpatim contains a myriad of rules and laws that govern the lives of the Israelites, the ancient Jewish community. If the Ten Commandments weren’t enough, now come scores of new commandments about how to relate to God, to other people and to oneself.

The list includes laws about how to eat, work, observe sacred days, till the soil and treat crime and criminals. In short, this Torah portion is about how to live one’s life as a Jew, both ethically and ritually. It is almost like a “mini-book,” a manual on God’s will and wishes for the newly freed slaves.

Why would God introduce the Israelites to their newfound freedom with a whole litany (or burden) of brand-new restrictions and regulations? Isn’t this a strange way to welcome an oppressed and formerly enslaved people to their new and supposedly liberated condition?

I think that a key to understanding this phenomenon is rooted in the fact that, for the Israelites, freedom was never supposed to exist in a vacuum.

Why would God introduce the Israelites to their newfound freedom with a litany of brand-new restrictions?

The text makes it clear that, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were meant to change their status from being ovdei Paro (slaves of Pharaoh) to ovdei Adonai (servants of God). Their responsibilities and obligations don’t disappear. They shift.

In fact, whenever the Torah tells us that the Israelites are to be freed from bondage in Egypt, the verses are immediately followed with the statement that they are being liberated “in order to serve God in the wilderness.”

Serving God, submitting to God’s will, is not viewed by Judaism as something onerous and burdensome, but as something liberating, something transformative of our souls and our community.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to build and maintain a healthy, intimate relationship between two parties without a clear set of commitments. The laws and rules in Mishpatim represent the moral and spiritual guidelines between the people of Israel and God, the tangible expression of the covenant that bonds them.

While it may seem challenging for the Israelites to have to take on the weight of these commandments on the heels of their enslavement under Pharoah, the commandments should be treated as a gift, an expression of God’s love for them — God’s treasured or chosen people — and God’s desire to be close to them for all time.

Yet how many of us today view the practices and observances of the Jewish tradition in this way? And how many contemporary Jews have largely dismissed the rules of Judaism as antiquated or irrelevant? Outside of the Orthodox community, I’m afraid that this is more the norm than the exception.

We do view them as a burden. We don’t view them as liberating and transformative.

That’s a shame, and it’s we who are missing out on their power to enhance our lives.

At the end of Mishpatim, and after all of the extensive rules and commandments contained within it, the Israelites cry out in unison, “All the things God has commanded, we will do!” (Exodus 24:3)

That is a very high bar for most of us. But it is within our reach, and it is a goal we should not shy away from. Judaism offers us a path to freedom and purpose that is ours for the taking.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."