“And these are the rules that you shall set before them,” this week’s parashah begins. With this introduction, the Torah readies us for a list of instructions communicated to the Jewish people by God through Moses. The Etz Hayim Torah commentary remarks,
With this parashah, the tone of the Torah changes. Up to this point, it has been a narrative, with occasional references to laws; now, the emphasis is reversed. From here on, the Torah will present the rules by which the Israelites are to live, with occasional narrative breaks (p. 456).
In other words, the epic stories of the book of Genesis describing God’s creation of the world and the origins of the Jewish people, and the master narrative of the book of Exodus, God’s freeing the Jewish people from slavery… have now already been read, at least for this year. We transition now to parashah after parashah of lists and instructions. According to some, this is the point in the Torah where things become less… interesting. But this week, as I studied the parashah with Beit T’Shuvah residents, I experienced exactly the opposite! Lists of instructions and rules, intended to guide human behavior and human society towards decency and righteousness, are powerfully compelling when we read them through the lens of our experience moving from active addiction and criminal behavior to a path of t’shuvah – a return to following the rules, a return to living well.
“He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death,” our parashah states, and continues, “If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee” (Exodus 21:12-13). The Etz Hayim Torah commentary clarifies that the first example here is speaking of murder – premeditated killing in which criminal intent has been proven beyond question; the second example, unintentional homicide, is treated differently. I studied these Torah verses, and this commentary, with a Beit T’Shuvah resident who, in their addiction, took action that led to the loss of human life. They certainly did not set out to kill – they were under the influence and not in their right mind. They fatally struck a person – but not by design. Then, was this action “an act of God”? As we studied the verses through the lens of this resident’s experience, we connected to Torah anew. Even though we didn’t end with a clear answer, we connected deeply to the text and to Jewish tradition.
Our parashah also states, regarding certain cases of bodily injury:
…the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Exodus 21:23-25).
I studied these verses with a Beit T’Shuvah resident who had entered the house straight from prison a year ago and who remembers this text from Torah Study at that time. They recalled laughing nervously as they read: having seen vengeful retaliation between prisoners – having personally experienced and witnessed this sort of bodily injury – this text hit close to home. They knew the pain of teeth knocked out, and it gave them a personal perspective on how harmful it would be to enforce this penalty. I explained that in the Talmud, the later interpretation of the Torah’s text, the Rabbis reread these sentences to mean that bodily injury should be repaid with a monetary fine, not with physical retaliation. We took comfort in the Rabbis’ wisdom, in their understanding that physical vengeance is never an act of righteousness.
As we study these Torah verses as a holy community of t’shuvah – a gathering of souls supporting one another on the path to living well – we see that these lists of laws and instructions speak to our lived experience. We can look at where we have gone astray from these instructions and come to develop a renewed moral compass in sobriety, guided not only by the laws and mores of the society surrounding us, but also by the principles and values of our Jewish tradition.
May we take this week’s parashah – and the many lists of God’s rules to come – as an opportunity to connect to a sense of righteousness anchored in our own spiritual heritage.