It is always amazing that the laws included in this weeks portion, Mishpatim, are still largely in place today. Excluding laws over slavery and the “eye-for-an-eye” portion, many of the standard torts haven’t changed in four thousand years. Included are laws about lost property, about injuries related to unsafe animals, about negligence of home owners, and many more.
The Torah laws themselves are borrowed from Hammurabi’s code composed nearly four thousand years ago, and likely more than a thousand years before the laws in the Torah were compiled. And likely Hammurabi borrowed his set of laws with someone else.
Human history is full of knowledge passed down from community to community, generation to generation, wrestled with and improved upon. Jews, in particular, have served as preservationists and amplifiers of good ideas. We have lived every where, and among almost every human culture, putting us in a unique position to carry out this vital task.
I love reading between the lines – or as the kabbalists say in the white fire beneath the black – and finding remnants of Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Byzantine, and many more. We are, as I like to say are a Velcro religion, taking good ideas and incorporating them into our own cultural identity. Things like dreidels, hamentashen, challah, and falafel all originated in communities other than our own.
That is not to say we haven’t invented anything on our own, just that there is a confluence of ideas that make something great. And the greatest part of it is that we can track where and when ideas emerged and find a little bit of human past in our present. So next time you observe a Jewish holiday, read from the Torah, or open a prayer book, think of the many civilizations that come before to make them possible.