Parenting By Parsha: Mishpatim

This week, we read the section of the Torah called ‘Mishpatim,’ a word generally understood to mean ‘laws.’ In modern Hebrew, the phrase ‘ma’arechet ha-mishpatim’ means the legal system, and a courthouse is a ‘beit mishpat’ — a house of laws. But that’s not the only way to understand ‘mishpat.’ It can also be defined as ‘sentence,’ like the sentence you’re reading right now, and I think that this double meaning is significant. The word sentence, in English, has a double meaning as well: It means the words that are organized in units on this page (or webpage), and it also refers to the decree of what should happen to someone if they have broken the law. 

As I read the verses of this week’s portion, in Exodus chapters 21 through 23, some key differences between these laws and the 10 Commandments were clear right away. First of all, while the commandments are general, these are almost too specific (“When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep,” says Exodus 21:37). It’s a sort of expansion on the 10 Commandments. Last week, we got “You shall not steal” (Exodus, 20:13), and this week we begin delving into the nitty-gritty. 

The other important difference, though, is that all of these laws have punishments along with them. Steal an ox — compensate the owner with five oxen. “He who strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death,” reads Exodus 21:15. Not just, ‘honor your parents’ or ‘don’t steal,’ but also what happens when you don’t follow those rules. 

Rules, known more commonly in pop-culture rhetoric as boundaries, are hard. I’m not very good at them; not great at following rules and definitely not super-awesome at enforcing them. I’ve always found it hard to follow rules; the question, “but, why?” echoes inside my head all day long. Some things are clear and easy: Don’t run a red light, because you might die. Don’t run with scissors, because getting impaled isn’t a good way to go. Mostly, the things that are easy to follow have to do with safety, and those are also the things that are easiest to enforce for our kiddo. Electrical outlets are off-limits. Thanks for helping Mama with the dishes, but don’t touch that knife. Simple. 

It gets harder in the grey area, that same area that Mishpatim tries to address. My wife and I have trouble parsing the things that we think are wrong because they’re understood to be wrong by society (e.g. no climbing onto the coffee table), and things that are actually dangerous. If we’re right next to our kiddo the whole time, is it really dangerous to get on a table that’s a foot off the ground? He climbs on play structures way higher than that at the playground every day. Am I limiting his conception of what is possible, and, therefore, his creative way of looking at space and how he inhabits it, by enforcing socially acceptable rules? To take this a step further, what if, by giving up on my preconceptions of what’s okay and what isn’t, my kid expands my way of seeing the space I’m in, instead of me narrowing his?

It gets even messier when you try to figure out the appropriate consequence for an action that goes against the rules that I can’t figure out. The Torah takes a very pragmatic approach to punishment: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise,” we read in Exodus 21:24-25. That’s one approach, certainly, but not really applicable in our household in a meaningful way. Yes, I believe that consequences should be related to the action. That said, a week or so ago my toddler pinched me on the face because I wasn’t getting up fast enough, in his opinion. I didn’t pinch him back.

This approach might make more sense when the little one grows older. “Stay out past curfew, and you don’t get the car,” I might say. Or maybe, “if you don’t put your laundry in the hamper, you don’t get clean clothes.” Something like that. By the time a kid is big enough to put laundry in a hamper or, heaven help me, drive, they should understand a few dos and don’ts. 

Boundaries aren’t bad, after all. We all need to know where the edges are, it makes us feel safe. This is true whether you’re a toddler or a senior. I should know — I spent my whole life testing my parents’ boundaries. Sometimes, I had to find out the hard way where the edges of ‘safe’ are. 

For now, though, my wife and I are talking about how to guide our toddler toward an understanding of guidelines. Not only the what, but the why of rules as well. Any ‘sentence’ amounts to a change in tone as we explain why throwing that jar of spices isn’t a good idea. We try to remember that he’s new here, and his job is to explore, and sometimes that means going against the grain. 

I admit that I didn’t expect to find discipline as challenging as I do, but when I read the parsha it makes a little more sense to me. All those specifics — they arise because every single day brings new situations you never could have conceived of before. And our kiddo’s curiosity makes for rules you never thought you’d have to figure out. Don’t put LEGOs in the blender? Or, maybe it’s fine without the blade and electricity? I’d never thought about putting LEGOs in a blender before, so this is new territory. Still, I’m grateful. By turning our house upside down, he’s forcing my wife and I to be more intentional about what’s a rule, and what’s a guideline, and what doesn’t really mean anything at all. If we play this right, we can all be explorers together.