With Parshat Mishpatim we begin what is called Sefer HaBrit, the Book of the Covenant. Its appearance so soon after last week’s reading of the Decalogue, God’s will revealed at Mount Sinai, tells us that we are on the hook for more than just the “Ten Commandments.”
How, exactly, are we “on the hook?” Notice that early in the Covenant Code, we learn about punishment. “He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death,” says the Torah (Exodus 21:12). Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, the Rashbam (Troyes, c. 1085-1158), notes the reason for the proximity of this law to last week’s big moment: “Having already issued the commandment, ‘You shall not murder’ (20:13), the text specifies the punishment for violating it. The same is true with the commandments to honor one’s parents (20:12; see 21:15 and 17) and not to steal (20:13; see 21:16).”
In the material for this week’s lunch n learn on The Observant Life, Rabbi Abby Sosland poses four different reasons for imposing penalties on those who violate the law: deterrence, retribution, the obliteration of pure evil from the community, and the cleansing of the land/national purification. She goes on to address four distinct punitive responses: capital punishment, incarceration, corporal punishment, and excommunication.
In what way are the Torah’s four goals of imposing penalties for criminal behavior achieved through the four methods of punishment? For example, does executing a murderer obliterate pure evil from the community? Does excommunicating someone who sells unkosher meat as kosher serve as a deterrent?
We’ll discuss these questions further at our Shabbat Observant Life Lunch n Learn.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise