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Hashem's Amazing Gift

By: Rav Michael Unterberg

In the early 20th century, in the location of the ancient city of Shushan, archeologists uncovered a large stone that was over seven feet tall. It was covered in small cuneiform script. Writing on a huge sculpture indicated that the information on it must have been important to the people who made it. After the difficult work of translation was finished, historians realized that they had a set of laws from the ancient Mesopotamian king Hammurabi. He ruled back in the days of Avraham Avinu, in the 18th century B.C.E.

People soon starting noticing something very interesting. Many of the laws recorded in this Code of Hammurabi, bore a striking resemblance to many laws in the Torah! In particular, many similarities exist with mitzvot in our parsha, Mishpatim. Of course, similar isn't identical, but the comparisons are striking. But its the differences which teach us what an amazing gift Hashem gave to us when he passed the Torah to Moshe on Har Sinai!

Let's list just a few examples:

1) Shmot 21:2 : "If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.”

Code of Hammurabi, section 117: "If a man become involved in debt, and give his wife, his son or his daughter for silver or for labor, they shall serve three years in the house of their purchaser or bondmaster: in the fourth year they shall regain their freedom."

2)  Shmot 21:18: "And if men fight, and one smite the other with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keep his bed; if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed." 

Code of Hammurabi, section 206: "If a man strike another man in a noisy dispute and wound him, that man shall swear, 'I did not strike him knowingly'; and he shall pay for the physician."

3) Shmot 21:24 : "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." 

Code of Hammurabi, sections 196,197,200: "If a man destroy the eye of a free man, his eye shall be destroyed." “If he break the bone of a free man, his bone shall be broken." "If a man knock out the teeth of a man of the same rank, his teeth shall be knocked out."

Of course, there are many other examples. Code of Hammurabi only deals with civil laws, which explains why so many of these parallels (lehavdil) appear in our parsha. But in all cases there are some major differences in approach and moral outlook. 

The Code of Hammurabi expresses all rules in an "if... then..." format. In other words, to make a functional society, we made a rule that if this bad thing happens, here's how we punish it. Hammurabi wanted things to run smoothly. 

The Torah does that as well. But the Torah also says, "don't"! Hashem is telling us that laws are not just to make things run smoothly. There is such a thing a morality. Killing and stealing aren't just disruptive, the are wrong. We shouldn't obey rules to avoid punishment, we should follow the mitzvot to become the best people we can be. 

We must never forget to appreciate the tremendous fortune that Hashem chose us to be members of the nation that brought the concept of ethical monotheism to human civilization. Being a member of our tribe is a great privilege. May we always be examples to others of our great and holy heritage. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mike




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