Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:8), Shabbat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16)

Chaos.  Law.  Orders coming down from above, some incomprehensible.  And what will we do with the resident aliens in our midst?  I refer, of course, to this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (statutes).

First:  Shabbat Shekalim is the first of four special Sabbaths leading to Passover on which a relevant addition is read from a second scroll and there’s a special haftarah. Exodus 30:11-16 is about the census of the adult Israelites via a half-shekel donation, or head tax.   The special haftarah is II Kings 11:17-12:17 (Ashkenazim, 12:1-17), is about the money donated to the priests for Temple maintenance.   A further complication: Rosh Chodesh Adar is Sunday and Monday, so some congregations will add the verses I Samuel 20:18 and 42 after the Shabbat Shekalim haftarah.

We read the Ten Commandments last week.  Now we read a few dozen more, 53, according to some commentators.  Some of these flesh out specific Commandments.  [Identifying which laws in Mishpatim link to which of the Ten Commandments is an exercise left to the reader.]  Chapter 21:2 -22:16 includes criminal and civil laws.  The goal is fair treatment.  Among the laws is the formula: (Ch. 21) “23 But if other damage ensues,* the penalty shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”  [*This refers to a miscarriage caused when a pregnant woman interferes in a fight between men (21:22)] This is the first of three times such a formula appears in the Torah. It prescribes just compensation, not mutilation. 

Chapter 22:17-23:19) continues the emphasis on treating each other fairly, like returning found animals and items to the owner, not favoring rich over poor or poor over rich in judgement, and caring for the needy.  The Israelites’ experience as slaves should make them acutely aware of the suffering of others and strongly desire to alleviate it.  A few future-oriented items are included as well, the dedication of the firstborn and the three harvest festivals and the sabbatical year. In a third section (23:20-33), the Lord tells the Israelites that an angel will accompany them to the Promised Land, that life will be good if they obey and that the Canaanites will be driven out to prevent the Israelites from worshiping their gods. Finally, (24:1-18) the people declare their acceptance of all the laws (at least for now) and Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Abihu, and the 70 elders ascend and see the Lord (24:9-10). And then Moses beings a 40-day sojourn on Mt. Sinai, writing down the Law, leaving Aaron and Hur in charge and, rather naively, expecting the people to behave.

It appears that a legal system is needed for the orderly functioning of a stable society.  Yet, as I wrote here three years ago, “(c)haos and legal systems are intimately linked, and not (just) because the latter are designed to eliminate the former…’Chaos’ denotes a kind of unpredictable behavior occurring in a deterministic system.  But in a deterministic system, the present determines the future.  Period.  So, this sounds like a paradox.  Rather, chaos is ‘a subtle mix of order and randomness; it is predictable in the short run (because of determinism) but unpredictable in the long run (because of sensitivity to initial conditions.’ ([Prof. Steven] Strogatz’s [Teaching Company] course transcript, vol. 1, p. 205, glossary).  Chaos theory focuses on the nature of the process, not the specific material … undergoing the process.”

In a similar tension between opposites, Robert E. Scott [Chaos Theory and the Justice Paradox, William & Mary Law Review, 35 329 (1993)] describes what is called the Justice Paradox: does the law produce justice between parties in a specific dispute today and will the law regulate the conduct of parties in such disputes in the future, as they learn from earlier experience?  In another, sense, this is the issue of justice versus law and the difficulty of obtaining both simultaneously.  Jean Valjean’s plight in Les Miserables shows that justice needs context to be humane; Javert’s obsession, that rules and laws are needed to control human behavior and protect the social welfare.

In one theory of law, early Legal Realism, the law draws its justification from “raw coercive power,” the force it wields as the “keeper of social order.” That view had greatest currency during the 1930’s (hmmm).  But consider the case of the ger (stranger, resident alien, even just “outsider,” as I wrote here 4 years ago) in this week’s portion, The fair treatment of the ger is mentioned 36 times in the Torah, this week in 22:20 and 23:9.  The Israelites are repeatedly told, because you were oppressed as strangers in Egypt, you do not oppress the ger.  Today, an unfortunately large number of people want to use raw, coercive legal power to oppress gerim of various sorts with a view toward protection of the social order as advocated in the 1930’s.

Scott uses chaos theory metaphorically to deal with the inherent justice versus law tension: “I suggest that we should look to Chaos Theory as a metaphor for the way to think about the contradictions and the tensions inherent in the legal system. … All systems, including the legal system, are unpredictable and erratic. The butterfly effect teaches us that small differences in initial variables will always produce dramatic variations in final outcomes. By explicitly applying this to law, it becomes clear that even slight differences in the facts of cases result in wildly disparate judicial outcomes. In both instances, disorder is inevitable…Chaos in law describes human life. Thus, we in law must continuously be self-conscious, self-criticizing, self-analyzing, but above all, patient and accepting of the limits of our discipline…Do not despair because law has fundamental contradictions. It is the very tension whose resolution we seek that keeps our legal system in a dynamic state of continuous renewal and repair.“ (pp. 348-50)
Shabbat shalom,




Hershel of Ostropol (1757-1811) was a prominent figure in Jewish humor in the Ukraine.

The Painting

Once, Hershele was selling antiques and trinkets in the market. Among his wares was a large canvas, that was entirely blank. A customer asked Hershele what it was, and Hershele replied:

– “For a silver shekel, I will tell you about this painting. (The man, overwhelmed by curiosity, gives him a shekel). Well, this painting is a famous painting, depicting the Jews crossing the Red Sea, with the Egyptians in pursuit.”
– “Well, where are the Jews?”

– “They’ve crossed.”
– “And the Egyptians?”
– “Haven’t come yet.”
– (Getting frustrated at having been duped) “And where’s the Red Sea?!”
– “It’s parted, dummkopf!”



Advertising a dentist’s office:


Lost Mosquito




Quotes about Chaos

The task of art today is to bring chaos into order. Theodor Adorno

I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me. Bob Dylan

We know from chaos theory that even if you had a perfect model of the world, you’d need infinite precision in order to predict future events. With sociopolitical or economic phenomena, we don’t have anything like that. Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man. Henry Adams


FEBRUARY 14, 2017

This one’s pretty straightforward:


Loud noises generated by burglar were unnecessary but helpful

Someone at the Olympia (Wash.) Police Department put this together to illustrate how officers caught a man burglarizing a local Taco Bell at 3:30 a.m. on February 6. It had snowed for most of the previous 12 hours and was just letting up about the time of the 911 call. This meant there was a nice, fresh covering of snow perfectly suited for leaving a trail of footprints.

This trail led toward the building where an alarm had been triggered. Specifically, it led to a ladder, the ladder went to the roof, and then more prints led to an open roof hatch. Inside: Burglar. “Snow makes crime scene investigation much easier,” one officer said, and that’s probably not always true but it certainly was here.

This, of course, is hardly the first time criminals have made things easy for law enforcement by leaving a trail of some sort that led police to them, directly or indirectly. See Crooks Leave Trail to Own Front Door” (Apr. 5, 2005) (coins dropped out of a hole in a milk crate); “Cake-Wielding Police-Station Vandals Test Positive for Icing” (Jan. 12, 2007) (trail of crumbs led from station to cake box outside restaurant; two restaurant patrons later arrested); see also Angry Parrot Leads Police to Thief” (July 21, 2006) (parrot-stealer’s DNA obtained from blood trail caused by parrot bite); “Trail of Chewing-Tobacco Spit Leads to Thieves” (May 14, 2009) (safecrackers’ DNA obtained from chewing-tobacco spit trail); cf.Police Rapidly Crack the Case of the Stolen GPS Devices” (Jan. 20, 2007) (self-explanatory).



Dumb Laws in the United States (sampling)

Alaska: Moose may not be viewed from an airplane.

              Juneau – Owners of flamingos may not let their pet into barber shops.

California: Sunshine is guaranteed to the masses.

              No vehicle without a driver may exceed 60 miles per hour.

Delaware:  Lewes – Getting married on a dare is grounds for an annulment.

Missouri: Kansas City – Minors are not allowed to purchase cap pistols, however they may buy shotguns freely.

               St. Louis – It’s illegal to sit on the curb of any city street and drink beer from a bucket.

New York: The penalty for jumping off a building is death.

New Jersey:  It is illegal to wear a bullet-proof vest while committing a murder.

Pennsylvania:  You may not sing in the bathtub.

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