Amazing lessons from an overlooked verse: Mishpatim


By Rabbi Scott Hoffman
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 – 24:18.

One of the most prominent rabbis of the civil rights movement was the late Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Newark, N.J., who secured a spot on the dais at the March on Washington in August 1963.

It was a rabbi’s dream: the opportunity to address an audience of more than 200,000 marchers. But the dream came with a string attached when the speaker slotted after Prinz was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, who delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on that hot summer day. Whenever I share this story with colleagues, they always respond by saying, “Look, it could have been worse. He could have been assigned to speak after Dr. King.”

Reading this week’s portion, it’s not hard to understand this sentiment. It follows last week’s giving of the Ten Commandments. Before that were the stories of Moses, the plagues and the Exodus. This week, we read long list of laws that are not only mundane, but also seem to have limited connection to one another.

But sometimes important teachings are buried in the least likely of places. Take this often overlooked verse: “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the fat of My festival offering shall not be left lying until morning.” (Exodus 23:18). What does this verse teach us, especially at a time when Jews no longer offer sacrifices?

First, it teaches us that sacrifices, with the exception of the todah, or thanksgiving offering, were always offered with unleavened bread. Why? The biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto offers two reasons.

First, he suggests that the surrounding Canaanite nations offered sacrifices to their gods during seasonal festivals, which were at least outwardly similar to the chagim as described in the Torah. These sacrifices were accompanied by bread and honey, which were fermented products. As a sign of wishing to stand apart from other nations, Jewish sacrifices were to be offered with unleavened bread. It’s just one way in which Judaism adapted familiar, everyday ceremonies from the surrounding culture but added uniquely
Jewish twists.

Second, we can adduce a homiletic explanation for this commandment. Perhaps fermented products, which were “puffed up,” came to symbolize a “puffed up” personality. In other words, by eating only matzah with our sacrifices, we were reminding ourselves to maintain
a proper sense of humility in the presence of the Divine. You’ve no doubt heard this explanation offered as one of the reasons we eat matzah, rather than leavened bread, for the eight days of Passover.

What about the last part of the commandment, the injunction not to leave the offering on the sacrificial fire all night? Cassuto here suggests that the thrust of this is to prevent celebrants from extending the ceremony late into the night. The revelers would drink too much and seek out bawdy after-hours entertainment. What do we call this in our day?

According to the late Professor Saul Lieberman, the term afikomen doesn’t mean “dessert,” but rather “inappropriate after-dinner carousing.” When you finish the seder, you maintain the holiness of the day by staying home.

In sum, we can derive three important lessons from this passage: the need to distinguish ourselves from others, the necessity of humility before God and the requirement to avoid unseemly behavior on sacred occasions. Not bad for a verse that has the misfortune to appear after all of those great stories of Exodus.

Rabbi Scott Hoffman is rabbi of B’nai Shalom of Olney.

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