Why is the first law, after the Ten Commandments that is, to do with slavery? One reason may be that the Israelites have just themselves emerged from slavery, so the first thing they should regulate is slavery itself, thereby avoiding the mistreatment of the weakest in society. Another reason could be that God, in his infinite wisdom, knows that one of the hardest sins to eliminate is the exploitation of others. Last year I mentioned how little time has gone by since the abolition of slavery in the United States and in the British colonies of the Caribbean. I did not remind you that slavery exists until this day, not only in some Arab and African countries, not only in South Asia, but here, in Europe, in Britain. Think of how some refugees are abused and sold into prostitution and forced to labour for meagre, or no, wages. How desperately we need the laws of Mishpatim, the injunctions against murder, kidnap, injury (of slaves, again), stealing, putting your neighbours and your neighbours’ animals in danger by a reckless lack of common concern. How the poor and weak needed, and still need, protection against cruelty and selfishness.
Besides the practical and the moral, there are deeply spiritual, even mystical elements in Mishpatim. God says he will send an angel to safeguard the people on their way. The people for once, speak with one voice in accepting God’s word. Moses, Aaron, his sons Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders go up and see “a vision of the God of Israel, and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear (blue) sky”. Moses then ascends higher and God’s glory descends and rests on Mount Sinai. This is the reverse of the story of the Tower of Babel, when man, in his hubris, tried to reach the heavens. Now, in a way, Moses does reach the heavens. Because he goes up with great humility, God comes down with great grace.
With Terumah we move from a blueprint for building a just society to a blueprint for building a sacred space, upon which the moral and the social will be based. Fittingly, the first of God’s instructions to Moses is to have the people make Him an offering “from everyone whose heart impels him to give”. In other words, the foundation stone of both the sacred and the social-moral is willingness. The people choose to make the Covenant.
And you can choose to come to our service this Saturday at 10.30 to take part in our service. It will be led by Pat Lipert.