02/04/2013 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Exodus 21:1-24:18: Justice and Faith

Fresh from the excitement and even fright of the Sinai experience, Israel appears in this week's Torah portion as the recipient of a lengthy and eclectic collection of laws spoken by God. The very name of our reading, Mishpatim, means "laws" or "statutes."

It is striking that these laws are "bookended" in the Torah's narrative by two sublime experiences of Divine revelation at Mount Sinai: the announcement of the Ten Commandments in last week's portion (Yitro) and the sealing of the covenant at the end of this week's portion.

Among the various laws mentioned in Mishpatim is that of human trafficking. Exodus 21:16 puts it simply: "He who kidnaps a man -- whether he has sold him or is still holding him -- shall be put to death." The Hebrew word translated here as "kidnaps" is "gonev," literally, "steals." This is the same word our ancestor Joseph used to describe his own sale into slavery in the book of Genesis.

The Talmud sees the ransoming of captives as a "great mitzvah," and the legendary medieval thinker Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) prioritizes ransoming captives over giving charity to the poor. Rabbi Benjamin Ze'ev b. Mattathias (16th century) explains that this priority is due to the captive's being constantly in danger of murder, hunger and nakedness. Rabbi Joseph Colon (1420-1480) warns that a person who has the ability to save a trafficked person yet delays doing so is "like one who sheds blood."

To our shame, we today are just as familiar with this crime as our ancestors were. Victims of human trafficking are all too frequently hidden victims in plain sight, suffering strangers walking among us. Tragically, we have not yet fully integrated the teaching articulated twice in this portion (22:20 and 23:9) and several other places in the Torah prohibiting wronging the "stranger" (ger).

How do ethically minded people oppress trafficked persons, you might ask? By unwittingly enabling the myriad indignities they continue to suffer every day. We are responsible for our own lack of knowledge about (or estrangement from) the pain of others.

Exodus 22:20 and 23:9 remind us that even if we do not know the particular experience of victims of trafficking, we do carry with us the collective memory of being alienated and mistreated: "For you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." Further, the word "know" in the Hebrew Bible connotes a deep, intimate knowledge, and we -- "strangers" in Egypt as a result of the sale of our own ancestor, Joseph, into slavery -- are actually heirs to that intimate knowledge about human trafficking, if only we tap into it.

So why are an anti-trafficking law and many other pieces of social legislation situated between two accounts of revelation? The answer is that God's self-revelation in last week's Torah portion is incomplete without a human implementation of that revelation on earth in the form of just societies, as we read about this week.

An unjust society is not a place in which God can be found; it is not even a society that will ultimately last. For this reason, Rabbi Joshua Falk (1555-1614) writes that if a person is faced simultaneously with a justice task and a worship task, God prefers that the justice task be attended to first -- otherwise, "evil will be strengthened ... and the world will be destroyed by itself."

Yet creating a just society is not itself the whole of religion. Rescuing and restoring the dignity of human trafficking victims, the poor and other vulnerable persons, and assuring equal justice for all, are nonnegotiable obligations -- but insufficient for a full religious life.

Interestingly, when Israel is described as a "holy people" in Exodus 22:30 it is on the basis of their adherence to a ritual law and not the Torah's repeated call to protect the vulnerable. Being a holy people requires taking social responsibility and incorporating the meta-rational elements in our tradition, including ritual and theology.

The enigmatic, mystical experience of God described at the end of our Torah portion, following all of the social legislation, is a pointed reminder that God is indeed mysterious, and that no activity in this world -- however vital for a just human society on this earth -- can by itself lead us to an understanding of God.

While we may not experience the grandeur of the revelations described in these chapters of Exodus, we can believe that our actions are anchored in a relationship with the Divine. However confusing it might be to discern God's will, we seek to fashion our lives in response to that great call that continues to echo forth from Sinai.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.