Torah is everywhere and everything, and affects all of our relationships - with HaShem, with ourselves and with others, both fellow Jews and non-Jews, and for all levels of society. This parashah, which outlines civil law and torts, including damages and liablity outlines all of this, with an underlying message of respect for *all* human life. This parashah occurs immediately after Yitro, where we received the Torah. According to Rash"i, this is to teach us that the Sanhedrin, the Courts, should be located near the Temple.
It begins with slavery. As an American, I abhore the practice, but it is a part of our history and world culture, and it was important at the time the Torah was first given and for millenia afterwards. The slave in question here is an eved ivri - a Hebrew slave. These are men (and only men) who have either sold themselves because they are in dire poverty and have no other way out or have been sold by the court because they were thieves and were unable to pay their fines or to reimburse their victims. In either case, the men serve for six years and go free in the seventh, unless Yovel, Jubilee, occurs before then.
The bondsmen in question here are thieves. As such, servitude is an appropriate punishment. Just as they had no respect for other's ownership, they should become owned themselves for a time. As slaves, their bodies are not their own, so their owners can mate them with non-Jewish slavewomen to produce slave offspring. However, the Torah recognizes the danger in this, so it mandates that only married men can be mated, under the assumption that a man will not abandon his original family. This family would also be supported by the master - which would also explain why they'd permit him to mate the eved ivri - he'd get something besides the slave's work.
If, however, he decides he *likes* being a slave, that he likes his master and loves his slave family, then after six years, he can stay. But the Torah deplores this. As Jews, we are slaves to HaShem. To willingly choose to remain a slave to a man is against all teachings. So, his ear is pierced - he's taken to a doorpost and they pierce his ear with an awl. Why a doorpost? Well, first it's practical in that in a world of stone buildings, the doors only are likely to be wooden and you do need a backing for a piercing. Also, there's a mezuzzah on the doorpost reminding one who the True Gd is and who we are supposed to serve. But more to the point, on the first Pesach, we spread blood on the doorposts as signs we trusted in HaShem to set us free from slavery. Now this man's blood is on a doorpost to signify that he's chosen to be a slave.
Why an awl? Because the Hebrew word for awl has the gematria (the numerology) of 400, which is the number of years we were supposed to spend in slavery in Egypt. Also because, I assume, it hurt more. It's a punishment, after all.
A father (and only a father) can sell his daughter into slavery, too. However, once she hits puberty, she either goes free without penalty or she is married to either her master or her son, and becomes a mistress of the household just like any other wife. More than that - if her master decides early on that, no, he's not going to marry her or make her his daughter-in-law, he has to allow her father to redeem her at the most favorable terms. If she's sold young enough, she might serve all six years, but if she hits puberty early or yovel comes, she's free without penalty. No adult Jewish woman can be a slave, apparently. I'm not sure what they do with female thieves who cannot pay their fines or women who are in dire poverty.
Again, as an American in the 21st Century, this strikes me as distasteful. However, remember that marriage at or before puberty was not abnormal well into the Renaissance and is still practiced today as a means of assuring that the girl is provided for. It's also used as a source of power in polygamous societies such as fringie Mormons and certainly ancient Israel was a polygamous society, even though every example of polygamy used in the Torah has been negative.
The laws that follow, regarding manslaughter and murder, look surprisingly familiar. It differentiates between malicious murder and accidental manslaughter; and gives different penalties. But also notice - no mention is made of the social status or gender or age of the victim. The penalty is the same if you kill a Judge or farmer, if you kill a man or a woman, if you kill an adult or a child. To us, this is obvious, but think about human history and how it was easy for a nobleman to kill a peasant. This gives a clear message - all humans are valuable and alike to HaShem. The only exception is your own parents. If you hit or curse your own parents, you merit death. As you are commanded to honor them, this makes sense.
(Note, though, that all death penalty offenses must be properly witnessed, and the witnessing rules are so strict that they were almost impossible to be fulfilled. This is why a Sanhedrin who gave out a death penalty once in seven years (and Rabbi Akiva said once in 70) is called a murdering Sanhedrin.) There are other, lesser penalties instead.
It then follows with damages after a fight -w ho pays what and how much. Again, note that it doesn't mention rank. If a high-ranking official hits a lowly shepherd, and injures him, the official has to pay. For that matter, if a master hits his slave, including a non-Jewish slave, and the slave dies right away, the master gets the death penalty. Because human life is valuable, even human life that is owned by another human. If the slave takes some time to die, it's assumed that the master didn't want to lose valuable property and it was an accident.
In a bit of interesting wording, the Torah then goes on to say what happens in the case of an accidental injury, using a pregnant woman as an example. If she gets in the middle of a fight and loses the fetus, but is otherwise uninjured - the Torah using the words "no fatality" - the fighters pay the couple the value of the fetus. How is that determined? They go to the slave market. There is an assumption that a pregnant slave is worth more than a non-pregnant one because you get two slaves out of the deal. So it's a fairly simple deed to subtract the value of one from the other, and there you get your penalty. If the woman dies, her husband gets her full value - the price of a pregnant slave of her age.
This is how all fines are assessed - whatever the difference between a slave with this injury and without. So the famous phrase, "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc", which comes from the parashah, is about monetary damages. It doesn't help Reuben much if, after Shimon gouges out his eye or knocks out his tooth, Shimon gets his own eye or tooth knocked out, does it? But if Shimon has to pay Reuben money, it at leaset means something to Reuben. Note again - while age and sex are relevent, social position is not. And it's entirely possible that a woman slave might be more valuable than a man slave.
Humans are worth more than animals. This is the Torah position, and it's shown here. If an animal kills a human, the animal is automatically killed and the carcass is not used. If an animal is known to be violent - an ox that has gored twice before (other animals, obviously, because if he'd gored a human, he'd be dead) and the owner knew - the owner also dies, although Rash"i says it's a heavenly punishment, not from the hands of the Court. This is because negligence is not to be tolerated. If you know your animal is dangerous, you are responsible for controlling it.
However, if he pays a fine - according the age of the victim or a flat rate for a slave - he won't be punished further, other than losing his animal.
Human life is important. Property is also important, if to a lesser degree. So, if the ox kills another ox, the ox isn't killed. Instead it's sold and the money is divided between the two owners and the dead animal is also divided between them. This is if the ox has never gored before, because it's recognized that animals can act violent once and get over it. If it's habitual, though, and the owner knows it, the other owner keeps the entire carcass, which is valuable in and of itself.
Since we're still on animals, the Torah brings up what happens if a thief takes an animal and sells or slaughters it - he's liable for five cattle if he stole an ox, and for four sheep or goats if he stole a sheep or a goat. Because the loss of an animal is a major problem.
And now we're back on thieves. And back on human life, too. If a thief tunnels in in the middle of the night, it's fair to assume that he is willing to kill the owners. In that case, an owner is justified in killing the thief if he can't stop him any other way. If it's a daylight robbery, then one assumes that the thief isn't about to add murder to the crime and so killing him is murder. One can only kill if one's life or another life is in danger and there is no other way of stopping it.
And then the thief is liable for what he stole - both what he stole and its value. If he doesn't have it in his possession, he pays a double fine. The exception is for animals as above. And if he doesn't have the means, he's sold.
If you permit your animals to steal from someone (grazing in their fields or orchard), you are liable to the best of your land. If you permit your fire to go unchecked, you are liable to all damages. Everyone knows fires must be controlled. Negligence is negligence, even if no human or animal is harmed.
Then the Torah goes on to talk about responsibility - the difference between being asked to watch something and being paid to watch something, and between borrowing something and renting something. If the item is lost, damaged or stolen, the paid guardian is more liable than the one doing it as a favor because he should be more careful about it, but a borrower, who gets the use for free, is more liable than the rentor. Because the rentor must pay, he gets less use out of the item.
If a man seduces a virgin - as opposed to rape - he has to give her a marriage contract. If she or her father decide not to let him marry her, he gives her father the marriage settlement of a virgin. Even a young woman must have her rights respected.
Sorceresses - those who use evil magic to control the universe as if they, themselves, were HaShem - cannot be permitted to live. They respect neither Gd nor humans nor the universe itself.
Beastiality, which is essentially rape of animals since they cannot give consent, and which raises an animal to human level, is completely forbidden.
We were treated badly in Egypt. If we treat others badly, it is as if we have forgotten that, and Gd will hear their cries and we will be punished by death.
If someone is in need, one should loan him (without interest) the money or items he needs. When I moved to Flatbush, I was amazed. The local giveaway admagazines are full of lists of gemachs, free loan societies. There are people who will lend *anything* to those in need - shoes for children, baby and maternity clothes, breast pumps, medical equipment, sewing machines and patterns, things needed for a wedding so a poor bride can still be a queen (gowns, flower arrangements, books, whatever). It makes me want to write dozen checks to a dozen places. It's a victory for human dignity. And it all comes from that verse.
Also, if your borrower is remiss and you have to take collateral, and it's something he needs at certain times, you have to let him use it. As HaShem is compassionate, so much we be. Although, compassion has its limits.
This shows in the passages about court cases. A judge may see a poor person and rule in his favor because he needs the money. This is not permitted - one must not let one's compassion take the place of justice.
Equally, one must not let one's enmity take the place of compassion. If one's enemy is in trouble, you are required to throw off your natural inclination and help him, even if his animal runs away more than once or his car keeps breaking down. This is something you'd automatically do for a friend out of love, and something you'd do for a stranger because it's the right thing, but the Torah says you must do it also for your enemy. Because he, too, is human and worthy of that help, and because his animal should not be punished for what goes on between humans.
Equally, though, one should not let prejudice damage a case. A religious person might find it easy to rule against a non-religious person as someone liable to do wrong. Torah comes to say, no. You judge the case on the case and nothing else. And keep to the truth and don't take bribes and take care never to harm an innocent person.
This is a revolutionary document. Wealth and power, social position, place of origin, sex, condition of servitude - all are valuable simply for being human, according to Jewish law. They cannot be killed or hamed with impunity, and that includes slaves. Their property must be respected, but not if their animals harm humans. And above all, justice must be fair and impartial because all humans are alike before it.