Yitro, Mishpatim, and Disability Shabbat

Written by Alan A. Fisher on . Posted in Features

From the excitement of the Exodus, crossing of the Sea of Reeds, destruction of the Egyptian army and fireworks of the revelation at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), the Torah now changes both focus and tone. Through most of Parshat Yitro, the wording in the Torah is primarily narrative. However, starting with Aseret ha’Dibrot (Ten Commandments), and then especially in Parshat Mishpatim, we turn from history class to law school. In short, the remainder of Sefer Shemot and vast bulk of Sefer Vayikra are primarily mitzvot. In the mitzvot sections of the Torah, the presentation is primarily thematic and not necessarily chronological. (Rabbi Menachem Leibtag at www.tanach.org explains the chronology of each parsha.)


Parshat Mishpatim contains 53 of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, and the range of subjects is so broad that it is extremely difficult to fit all of them into any coherent theme. This issue of Kol HaBirah focuses on disability awareness and the theme of inclusion; How does this theme fit into the subjects of Yitro and Mishpatim? What can we learn from the Torah portions we read during these two weeks that relate to efforts that Jewish organizations can and should put into involving members of the community with special needs?

G-d made a transition from His original plan for Adam–– making all humans holy in His image–– to His plan for Avraham, selecting a small subset of humans to set an example and work to perfect the world. Our responsibility is tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. I read the material following the revelation at Har Sinai in this context.

As the Torah moves from narrative to mitzvot, we find a few laws about how to daven to Hashem (Exodus 20:19-23) and then the text transitions into civil laws in Mishpatim (21-23:12) before returning to more laws between man and G-d.

There are two basic types of the civil laws: cases of damage with a plaintiff, which go to the beit din (court) for judgment, and cases without a plaintiff, for which G-d will exact judgment. Both types contain a strong emphasis on compassion for the weak, disabled, impoverished and otherwise especially needy.

The first mitzvot in Mishpatim require treating slaves and bondswomen properly (21:1-11). A slave owner must free all slaves and slaves’ wives after six years. A bondswoman has special protections designed to result in marriage by the end of her six-year obligation. In short, slavery is a temporary status intended to result in freedom and financial independence within a seven-year period.

Other mitzvot admonish against treating gerim (strangers, temporary visitors and converts) improperly because we were slaves in Egypt. Because we understand the awful conditions under which we suffered for generations as slaves, we should go out of our way to treat a ger with respect and compassion. Indeed, Bava Metzia 59b states that the Torah cautions us 36 times to treat gerim properly. This is more caution than given for any other mitzvah, including such basic values as observing Shabbat and loving G-d.

How and when will G-d exact judgment for afflicting widows, orphans and other members of society with special needs (22:20-23)? Rashi’s interpretation is that G-d will hear and intervene when the disadvantaged person davens to Hashem, as He did when the Jews in Egypt davened (2:23). Ramban, however, reads this section as meaning that G-d will hear and exact judgment any time an afflicted, disadvantaged person cries out in pain. (For a much more extensive treatment, see Nehama Leibowitz, “New Studies in Shemot: Exodus,” vol. 2, pp. 379-401.)

Proper treatment of the disadvantaged members of society is a recurring theme in Tanach. Perhaps the most vivid example is in chapter 1 of Yishayahu–the Haftorah we read the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av–– when G-d had already decided to destroy the Temple and send Bnei Yisrael into exile:

“Why do I need your numerous sacrifices? . . . when you spread your hands [in prayer], I will hide My eyes from you . . . Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow.”

Hashem, the G-d who took us out of slavery in Egypt, goes almost immediately from the revelation at Har Sinai to present 53 mitzvot. Much of the focus is on proper treatment of the most needy members of society. Can one think of a more appropriate subject for Disability Shabbat?