You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Mishpatim.
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb AJR/CA
…Our Torah Portion Mishpatim, starts off ‘V’Eilah Hamishpatim’ the extra Vav (and) emphasizes that these laws were given at Sinai just as the ten commandments. It teaches that our faith is not restricted to the spiritual realm, but it deals with the material and financial concerns that people face every day, and the everyday interrelationships between people are ‘religious issues.’ So, the Jewish legal system must be juxtaposed with the religious laws of the ten commandments because one without the other leads to a limited blueprint for an elevated society. Religion without legal ethics, and legalism without religion is disastrous. The Parsha thus begins with the criminal and impoverished because the test of a just society is how it treats its powerless. We know all too well how equal justice is often not meted out fairly. Moreover, there are many examples of those who attempt to obsessively uphold laws that are oppressive to others who have less power, and there are those who want control at all costs, or who do not respect the rights of those whom they perceive to be in opposition to their way of life. The Torah asserts integration between law and religion with no bifurcation; religion applies to every part of life and where it shines most is in the ever day dealing with our fellow human beings.
Our Parsha starts out with the law of the Hebrew servant, listing his rights and the responsibilities of his owner, for the Torah has made the slave into a hired worker since the Torah excluded the Hebrew people from slavery. The institution of the misnomer ‘slavery,’ is really a rehabilitation process for one could only become a Hebrew Slave in two ways. The first is if one was poor and could not pay off his debt; this was a way to work off his debt (Vayikra 25: 39,40); the second way is if one stole from someone; the court ruled that the thief had to pay off what he stole by working for that person. This process is much more effective than incarceration in transforming the consciousness of the one in debt or a thief, by assigning him to live with and getting to know the person that he harmed; it is much more likely that an intimacy, and sense of remorse and compassion will occur as opposed to putting a person in prison, isolated, or surrounded by other wounded human beings who may be feeling angry and bitter and thus less likely to reform behavior. The percentage of recidivism is so high for released prisoners, for one is often let out of prison with no money, nor earning power, nor vocational training, nor education unlike the Hebrew servant who when he leaves is given earnings and the capacity to succeed in society. The protections given to the Hebrew slave were such that the Talmud says that he who hires a Hebrew slave hires a master.
The Torah mentions no less than 42 times that we were slaves in Egypt and therefore we should not enslave others. Therefore, the first law of human relationships is that no one should be enslaved for life. The Hebrew slave could only serve up to six years, and if the Shmita year came before that time he is free during the six years. Also, if the master refused the slave proper food, ( the Talmud in Kiddushin 20A states that he must be given the best bread, best wine, best mattress, etc.), or imposed tasks upon him that hurt his dignity, even by saying “Put on my shoes,” or if he insulted him or beat him, the Law Court (Bet Din) would immediately free the slave. The Hebrew Servant was not allowed to be a personal servant but must be free to do his usual occupation and when he is freed it was to be without any reparations even if he created expenses because his wife and children are given board and lodging and even if he marries while a slave. He can only work 6 years, but he can leave at any time if he repays his debt, except if he chooses to stay longer. If he chooses to stay his ear is pierced because ‘he did not hear at Sinai that he should ONLY be a servant of the Lord’, and not to another human being, since the Hebrews were freed from the slavery which they experienced in Egypt.
The Rabbis also explain that a thief may not realize the attachment that the owner has to his possessions, and thus he may feel that his punishment for stealing is too severe. There is no way of demonstrating the pain that he has caused apart from making him share the same experience himself. The thief could have justified his theft on the grounds that the owner was richer than he and that he would not feel the loss greatly but by living with the master he can witness the attachment to and the pain of the loss of his possessions. There may be a deeper connection to our possessions than one realizes, and thus it says in Pirkei Avot 2:12, ‘Let the property of your fellow be as precious to you as your own.’
The basic goals of the Jewish Judicial system are the social equilibrium of the community and the moral perfection of its members; to inculcate through its laws human decency and moral responsibility, hence the details of its legal system. So, if one steals one is obliged to also pay back double the cost of the stolen object (Ex. 22:3). If the law were interested in restitution simple reimbursement would have sufficed. However, the Torah is also interested in the thief’s rehabilitation. So, he must suffer the same impact. By paying double he is out of pocket the same amount as his victim. The punishment makes amends to the victim and educates the victimizer.
This type of religious ethic, this type of sensitivity, is what led to a respect for law and property to the extent that the Talmud proclaims a few thousand years ago when people would go up to Jerusalem on their annual holiday pilgrimages, they left their homes unguarded, and on their return, they found everything intact, without any policemen to guard against thieves. The explanation is that the belief in G-d, the relationship of the ten commandments to the ethical laws is what prevent crimes, not legislation, punishments, or even capital punishment.
Many of the laws in Mishpatim are commandments to exercise self-control when temptation is the greatest in one’s relationship to the weak and defenseless. The test of a society is how it treats the powerless. (At times, the natural laws must be interrupted to protect the weak, unlike what Darwin and Nietzche preach ‘survival of the fittest’). Many ecologists believe that death is part of the natural order and that phenomenon contributes to the larger ecosystem. But Judaism teaches that morality transcends nature. We must interrupt the ‘natural’ order to protect the powerless. The commandment to ‘Love the stranger’ is mentioned 36 times, more than any other commandment.
An example of this is the law that one must help his enemy and overcome his hatred by practicing kindness and interaction. As it states in Ex. 23:4-5, ‘One must return one’s enemy’s ox if he wanders off, or if you see your enemy’s donkey lying under his burden, help your enemy lift it’. Do not intensify feelings that already exist, by not returning his ox, for if your enemy hears about it it will only make him more bitter. On the other hand, by doing him a kindly action you may restore harmony. The Rabbis attached such importance to this law that they declared that ‘Should your father tell you to ignore it, this is an instance where he must be disobeyed!”
Yes, friends the study of Torah brings us joy/happiness. Thus, in Adar we are enjoined to increase our Torah study and be joyous. May we all be blessed to bathe in the gems of the Torah as our soul dances to its tunes, its uplifting messages to create the ideal society. Let us each do our parts and come to Purim drunk with joy and faith.
Have a magnificent Shabbat!
MISHPATIM | SHABBAT SHEKALIM
BY RABBI GORDON TUCKER
The arrival of Parashat Shekalim (plural of shekel) each year is what might be called the liturgical “rite of spring” in the Jewish tradition, signaling that Pesah is six–seven weeks away, and preparations (spiritual and physical) for the great festival are very soon to begin. This year, it will be observed on Rosh Hodesh Adar, when the weekly reading will be Parashat Mishpatim.
The brief special reading for Shekalim (Exod. 30:11–16) sets forth the obligation that was imposed on the recently freed Israelite slaves to contribute one-half of a shekel to the Mishkan (Sanctuary) that was going to be built. But the reason we re-read this passage annually is not so much because of the biblical passage from Exodus (in which there is no suggestion that this was meant to be a repeated levy), but rather is owing to the opening words of the Mishnaic tractate entitled Shekalim:
“On Rosh Hodesh Adar they make a public announcement about the shekels.” (M. Shekalim 1:1)
That is, in the same way that we often get bills telling us that payment is due in 30 days, so it was in the time of the Second Temple: the fiscal year of the Temple began on Rosh Hodesh Nisan, and so a month earlier, the beginning of Adar, notice would go out that the half-shekel—the per capita tax that supported the public sacrifices—was about to come due.
Although in the Torah the shekel was a unit of weight, by the time of the Mishnah, there had already been hundreds of years during which coins were struck with images, which were often those of the realms’ rulers. And thus begins our story of minted coins.
One of the most famous passages referring to images of rulers on coins occurs in the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In those narratives, it is said that some adversaries tried to trap Jesus, by asking him whether it was proper, in Jewish religious law, to pay the tax imposed by the Roman government. If he said “No,” there would be grounds for informing on him to the Romans, while if he said “Yes,” he would lose all authority among his fellow Jews, all of whom hated that tax. But he evaded the trap by pointing out that, since the emperor’s image was on the coin used to pay the tax, the coin might as well go to its ultimate owner (“render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”). But crucially, he then added: “and to God the things that are God’s,” thus avoiding the trap.
But what was the meaning of that last phrase? I owe the following insight to the late JTS professor Fritz Rothschild. He pointed to an oft-quoted mishnah in the fourth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, in which God’s supernatural power is proven in this way: “When a person stamps coins with a single seal (Hebrew: hotam, and remember this word!), they all appear identical to one another. But the supreme King of kings of kings, the Blessed Holy One, stamped all people with the seal that was given to Adam, and not one of them is similar to another” (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). What this mishnah testifies to is that in late antiquity, there was a Jewish cultural meme that we are, metaphorically, God’s coins, stamped with the image of the divine. And thus, Jesus appears to have assumed that his listeners were aware of that metaphor, and would understand that while the emperor could claim possession of his (literal) coin, only God could claim the ultimate allegiance of God’s human servants.
So when the Torah enigmatically described the payment of the half-shekel weight as “expiation for your persons” (Exod. 30:15–16), it seems that later tradition understood the physical coin given to the Temple to be a metonym (a surrogate) for the human giving it, an act that signified devotion to the One whose Temple it was, and whose image was stamped on each person.
Coins, of course, can get tarnished, and the image on it blurred. And this leads us, finally, to a beautiful teaching of the early Hasidic preacher Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir, found in his work Or Hameir.
He draws our attention to a later mishnah in Tractate Shekalim (5:4), which is no longer dealing with the shekel but with other financial transactions in the Temple. Pilgrims bringing sacrifices to the altar would need to purchase flour and wine to accompany the animals being offered. In order to avoid having monetary dealings go through a single person, procuring those sacrificial adjuncts was a two-step process. The money would be given to a man named Yohanan, who would give the purchaser a stamp (the word hotam again), which would then be taken to Ahiyah, who would redeem that stamp with the flour and wine needed. At the end of the day, Yohanan and Ahiyah would go through a reconciliation, making sure that the number of stamps and the amount of money matched. But what, the following mishnah asks, would happen if someone lost his hotam? The text says that “we wait until evening comes,” and if there was indeed excess money, it would be certain that the person who had lost his stamp was truthful and he would be made whole again.
You can now see where Ze’ev Wolf was going. What if we lose our stamp? That is, what if the divine image imprinted on us “coins” gets so tarnished that it is, effectively, lost? Is there any hope, any way to be restored to wholeness? For this teacher, the seemingly defunct details of Temple transactions involving figures long since deceased were vibrantly alive as a message of penitence and hopeful restoration. If a person loses their stamp, we wait for them, suspending judgment until the end of the day. If we have lost our way, there is always hope of its being found again. What is the “end of the day”? Ze’ev Wolf tells us that if it is not the end of a single day, it might be the end of the week, or the month, or the year. However long it takes, the outstanding hotam can be restored. And it must be, for we alone are God’s currency in the world.
It is not just individuals whose stamp can be misplaced. So many in our nation have felt that America was progressively losing its hotam in the years just past. (Especially since it is said that God’s hotam is truth.) And that is no doubt why there is now such a broad feeling that perhaps the promised “end of the day” has arrived, and that there is hope for retrieving the lost stamp. But the one who lost the stamp must go looking for it, and show up at the reconciliation. May we all be part of a widespread will among all citizens to return to wholeness, and to become a truthful and compassionate society once again, God’s currency in the world.
By Rabbi/Cantor Arik Wollheim
In last week’s parsha, (sidra) Yitro, we read the basis of our Jewish law, the Ten Commandments which opens with the verse “I am your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”
However, this week parsha, Mishpatim, opens with the laws of slavery.
How is it possible that the first commandment, where God “introduces” Himself as the God who rejects slavery, who took the Jews from the house of slavery in front of the entire world, that that God would continue to ordain slaves?!
The answer lies in the laws of slavery which appear for the first time in this week’s parsha.
The Torah talks about a Hebrew slave who can work up to 7 years and must be released on the Sh’mita year (sabbatical) or Yovel year, (Jubilee, the 50th year) whichever comes first. The employer does not own the slave, only the slave’s work. The employer may not humiliate the slave. The employer may not ask the slave to perform any work that is not directly described as his duty. The employer must take care of his slave’s welfare: food, drinks and accommodations at a level equivalent to his own. A physical injury of the slave would result in a lawsuit identical to any other case of assault. The slave cannot work more than the agreed number of hours in a day. In simple terms, a Hebrew slave is a hired live-in help.
Chazal in the Talmud (Kidushin 22A) expressed that view by saying “כל הקונה עבד עברי כקונה אדון לעצמו” (anyone who acquires a Hebrew slave, acquires a master for himself).
The Torah rejects the idea of slavery and proclaim more than once in a clear voice “כי עבדי הם” (they are my servants) explaining every person has only one master – God Himself. In its brilliancy the Torah takes a term the Jews were familiar with, slavery, and completely strips it out from its old meaning thus teaching us both the negative perspective on slavery and the positive and compassionate one toward those individuals who ended up in those unfortunate circumstances.
There are two cases in which an individual becomes a slave: inability to financially support oneself, or inability to return or pay back a theft committed.
In the first case, the slavery period will enable the slave to acquire a profession, experience and financial base that would ensure a new beginning and financial independence. In the second, while living with and working for a family, the slavery period serves also as a rehabilitation program helping the slave not only to achieve financial independence but also to learn of right and wrong and making him/her a lawful and moral citizen.
Our parsha is not the only one which teaches the laws of slaves. In Parshat Behar (Vayikra 25; 39-43) the Torah repeats some and adds to the laws of slavery. It reminds us of these ideas by using the term אחיך your brother hence commanding us to remember that one’s slave must be always seen as a brother. The third time we learn about slavery in the Torah appears in Parshat Re’eh (Deut 15; 12-18) where we learn of the moral and social responsibility that we have toward our brethren who are less fortunate.
But what about a slave who not Jewish? What is the Torah’s view in this case?
In order to answer this question, I would like to quote the Rambam (1138-1204 Spain) in the very last Halacha he wrote in the laws of slaves. Here, the Rambam not only gives the Halacha but also expresses the view of the Torah and sets the desired standards
“It is permissible to work a heathen slave relentlessly. Even though it is lawful, the quality of benevolence and the paths of wisdom demand of a human being to be merciful and strive for justice. One should not press his heavy yoke on his slave and torment him, but should let him eat and drink of everything. The sages of old were in the habit of sharing with the slave every dish they ate, and they fed the cattle as well as the slaves before they themselves sat down to eat.- – Nor should a master disgrace his servant by hand or by words; the biblical law surrendered them to servitude, but not to disgrace (Niddah 47a). He should not madly scream at his servant, but speak to him gently and listen to his complaints.- -The progeny of our father Abraham, however, the people of Israel upon whom God bestowed the goodness of the Torah, commanding them to keep the laws of goodness, are merciful toward all creatures. So too, in speaking of the divine attributes, which he has commanded us to imitate, the psalmist says: “His mercy is over all his works” (Psalm 145:9). Whoever is merciful will receive mercy, as it is written: “He will be merciful and compassionate to you and multiply you” (Deuteronomy 13:18). ” (Rambam Mishne Torah, Book of Kinyan, Slaves 9;8)
The Rambam, while acknowledging reality, teaches us what is the expected behavior in this matter and in general. A non-Jewish slave should be treated like a Jewish one.
Now, you may ask, why does the Torah “settle” for fair and compassionate attitude towards slavery and not abolish it altogether?
There’s a saying that if you’re one step ahead you are considered a genius, but if you’re two steps ahead you’re a lunatic.
The Torah ultimately strives for a world without any slavery כי עבדי הם A human being can never be the subject of another, only of God; however, the world in which the Torah was given was not ready to accept a radical idea such as the complete eradication of slavery. In the US for example slavery was abolished only in the 19th century. Introducing such an idea thousands of years ago would result in a complete and total rejection.
This principle can be found in other places in the Torah like אשת יפת תאר the permission to take a woman in captivity during a battle where the Torah allows the soldier to take the woman solely for the purpose of marriage but not rape as was the norm at that time. Another example is בן סורר ומורה a rebellious child who is put to death by the court. Here, the Talmud explains that such case never happened and the law appears in the Torah only as a warning, hence showing us the reservation for the capital punishment in general, and the accepted norm at the time that parents could do whatever they wanted with their children. Another case is animal sacrifices where The Rambam explains that the Torah, despite allowing and describing animal sacrifice, rejects the idea of animal sacrifice and allowing it only as temporary form to get closer to God, based on the reality of those times.
In its wisdom, the Torah starts a process in which we are called to partner with God and advance the world, so that the world will be ready to accept the views of the Torah, views that have often been revealed and accepted only thousands of years later.
From the Hebrew College
By Rabbi Brian Besser
The Torah purportedly reiterates its mandate to protect the stranger 36 separate times. Variations in negative form (“do not wrong the stranger,” “do not oppress the stranger”) and positive (“you shall love the stranger,” “you shall have one law for the stranger and citizen alike”) appear throughout. Attesting to their importance, two such instances bracket the categorical commandments of the Book of the Covenant in this week’s portion. Righteous conduct toward the stranger—the outcast, the powerless, the destitute—lies at the heart of the Torah’s vision of a just society.
36 is an apocryphal number, contrived rather than actual, like the “613” commandments of Judaism. What does 36 signify? The source text is an offhand Talmudic comment:
Rabbi Eliezer said: “Why does the Torah warn against wronging the stranger in 36 … places? Because [they] may turn to bad.” (Baba Metzia 59b)
Before we address the matter of 36, the statement itself is provocative. At first glance, it seems to feed xenophobia, claiming that foreigners are up to no good. I don’t think that’s what Rabbi Eliezer is saying. He takes as a given that outsiders already live among us. Our dilemma is whether to treat them harshly or compassionately. If we overburden their already difficult lives, we encourage errant behavior on their part. The immigrant landing in alien territory has been uprooted from the social structures that normally reinforce proper conduct in all of us: family, friends, steady employment, religious community, governmental benefits, and so on. Without these supports, temptation increases to “turn to bad.” Therefore, we must interact with newcomers especially sensitively, because their vulnerability already renders them demoralized.
There is another way to read “they may turn to bad.” Maybe “they” refers not to the stranger but to the rest of us. Our yetzer hara includes the universal human tendency, genetically encoded, to react with suspicion against anyone unfamiliar (even as we spontaneously feel affinity with members of our own tribe). When the Rabbis talk about the yetzer hara, they don’t mean our inclinations are “evil” so much as instinctual. Judaism overall demands that we rise above our impulsive reflexes and act with wisdom and forbearance, guided by the ethical principles of our tradition. With regard to strangers, Rabbi Eliezer warns us that we may turn to our yetzer hara. We must override our innate distrust and instead respond from a higher place of lovingkindness.
Returning to the earlier question, why 36? Could it have anything to do with “double chai?” Or maybe it relates to the 360 degrees of the circle, an already commonplace metric in ancient times? Or, what about the lamed-vavniks? According to Jewish lore originating in the Talmud, these 36 righteous souls, scattered among the general populace in every generation, sustain the world. Should just one neglect her or his mission, the world would self-destruct in an instant. Tales typically depict lamed-vavniks disguised as strangers, their identity unknown even to themselves. When Rabbi Eliezer says that the Torah repeats its concern for the stranger 36 times, could he be thinking of them?
Once a certain town suffered prolonged drought. The crops withered; the cattle died; the well dried up. In vain the citizens fasted and prayed. One day a stranger arrived and prayed at the back of the synagogue. The worshippers spurned the vagrant as an intruder. The next day, it started to rain. Overjoyed, they ran to the Rabbi for an explanation. That night, the Rabbi dreamt in a vision: the stranger was a lamed-vavnik! But the visitor had disappeared. Sometime later, another stranger came to town. This time, the citizens welcomed their new guest. “You never know,” they said, “this one may be a lamed-vavnik!”
One message of the lamed-vavnik story is: you never know! The next immigrant admitted to the United States may become the researcher who cures cancer, or the leader who reconciles divisions within American politics. (In any case, social economists consistently maintain that newcomers enrich the commonwealth by contributing more to the economy than they consume in social services.)
There is another way to read the story’s lesson. Maybe the lamed-vavniks who do not know they are lamed-vavniks represent not the stranger but the rest of us. What if we considered ourselves to be among the hidden righteous who sustain the entire world? How might we behave differently toward someone against whom we might feel initial aversion, if we knew that (to paraphrase Maimonides) the fate of the world hung in the balance, and by dignifying her or him we tipped the scales toward universal salvation? This interpretation suggests the following significance to “double chai.” Whenever we treat ourselves and the other person as if either of us could be a lamed-vavnik—which is to say, whenever we recognize the divine image in one another—we ennoble and uplift both our lives (double chai).
While standing on one foot, the sage Hillel famously proclaimed the Torah’s foundational commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why then does the Torah continue just a few verses later: “you shall love the stranger as yourself?” Because loving your neighbor is relatively easy; the two of you already share familiarity and common ground. What does not come automatically is loving the stranger, whom you are naturally predisposed to fear.
Our perennial primary religious obligation is to widen the circle of our concern, constantly bringing more and more classes of people into the circle of our love—Jews, Muslims, Hindus and non-believers, liberals, conservatives and libertarians, men and women, cisgender and transgender, straight and queer, the affluent, the jobless, the penniless and the homeless, citizens, card-carrying immigrants and undocumented immigrants, Americans, Norwegians and Haitians, and on and on—until “love your neighbor as yourself” one day fills all 360 degrees of the circle and embraces all of humanity.
 סורו רע literally translates to “their character is bad,” but I’m playfully associating the phrase with סור מרע, “turn from bad [and do good].” (Psalm 34:15)
 so called “evil inclination”
 חי (chai), the Hebrew word for “life,” is numerically equivalent to 18.
 The letters lamed and vav together are numerically equivalent to 36.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Four Types of Abuse
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Loving the Stranger (Mishpatim 5779)
There are commands that leap oﬀ the page by their sheer moral power. So it is in the case of the social legislation in Mishpatim. Amid the complex laws relating to the treatment of slaves, personal injury and property, one command in particular stands out, by virtue of its repetition (it appears twice in our parsha), and the historical-psychological reasoning that lies behind it:
Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)
Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger [literally, “you know the soul of a stranger”], because you were strangers in Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)
Mishpatim contains many laws of social justice – against taking advantage of a widow or orphan, for example, or charging interest on a loan to a fellow member of the covenantal community, against bribery and injustice, and so on. The first and last of these laws, however, is the repeated command against harming a ger, a “stranger.” Clearly something fundamental is at stake in the Torah’s vision of a just and gracious social order.
If a person was a son of proselytes, one must not taunt him by saying, “Remember the deeds of your ancestors,” because it is written “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him.”
The Sages noted the repeated emphasis on the stranger in biblical law. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah “warns against the wronging of a ger in thirty-six places; others say, in forty-six places.”
Whatever the precise number, the repetition throughout the Mosaic books is remarkable. Sometimes the stranger is mentioned along with the poor; at others, with the widow and orphan. On several occasions the Torah specifies: “You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.” Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must be included in the positive welfare provisions of Israelite/ Jewish society. But the law goes beyond this; the stranger must be loved:
When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native- born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:33–34)
This provision appears in the same chapter as the command, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Later, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses makes it clear that this is the attribute of God Himself:
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are strangers, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17–19)
What is the logic of the command? The most profound commentary is that given by Nachmanides:
The correct interpretation appears to me to be that He is saying: do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking as you might that none can deliver him out of your hand; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the oppression with which the Egyptian oppressed you, and I avenged your cause on them, because I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter…Likewise you shall not afflict the widow and the orphan for I will hear their cry, for all these people do not rely upon themselves but trust in Me.
And in another verse he added this reason: for you know what it feels like to be a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and his eyes are always directed towards God, therefore He will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you [and likewise He has mercy on all who are oppressed].
According to Nachmanides the command has two dimensions. The first is the relative powerlessness of the stranger. He or she is not surrounded by family, friends, neighbours, a community of those ready to come to their defence. Therefore the Torah warns against wronging them because God has made Himself protector of those who have no one else to protect them. This is the political dimension of the command. The second reason, as we have already noted, is the psychological vulnerability of the stranger (we recall Moses’ own words at the birth of his first son, while he was living among the Midianites: “I am a stranger in a strange land,” Ex. 2:22). The stranger is one who lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone – and, throughout the Torah, God is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, the cry of the unheard. That is the emotive dimension of the command.
Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar (Ohr HaChayim) adds a further fascinating insight. It may be, he says, that the very sanctity that Israelites feel as children of the covenant may lead them to look down on those who lack a similar lineage. Therefore they are commanded not to feel superior to the ger, but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt. As such, it becomes a command of humility in the face of strangers.
Whichever way we look at it, there is something striking about this almost endlessly iterated concern for the stranger – together with the historical reminder that “you yourselves were slaves in Egypt.” It is as if, in this series of laws, we are nearing the core of the mystery of Jewish existence itself. What is the Torah implying?
Concern for social justice was not unique to Israel. What we sense, however, throughout the early biblical narrative, is the lack of basic rights to which outsiders could appeal. Not by accident is the fate of Sodom and the cities of the plain sealed when they attempt to assault Lot’s two visitors. Nor can we fail to feel the risk to which Abraham and Isaac believe they are exposed when they are forced to leave home and take refuge in Egypt or the land of the Philistines. In each of the three episodes (Genesis chapters 12, 20, 26) they are convinced that their lives are at stake; that they may be murdered so that their wives can be taken into the royal harem.
There are also repeated implications, in the course of the Joseph story, that in Egypt, Israelites were regarded as pariahs (the word “Hebrew,” like the term hapiru found in the non-Israelite literature of the period, seems to have a strong negative connotation). One verse in particular – when the brothers visit Joseph a second time – indicates the distaste with which they were regarded:
They served him [ Joseph] by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. (Gen. 43:32)
So it was, in the ancient world. Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilisation. The Greeks called strangers “barbarians” because of their (as it seemed to them) outlandish speech that sounded like the bleating of sheep. The Romans were equally dismissive of non-Hellenistic races. The pages of history are stained with blood spilled in the name of racial or ethnic conflict. It was precisely this to which the Enlightenment, the new “age of reason,” promised an end. It did not happen. In 1789, in revolutionary France, as the Rights of Man were being pronounced, riots broke out against the Jewish community in Alsace. Hatred against English and German immigrant workers persisted throughout the nineteenth century. In 1881 in Marseilles a crowd of ten thousand went on a rampage attacking Italians and their property. Dislike of the unlike is as old as mankind. This fact lies at the very heart of the Jewish experience. It is no coincidence that Judaism was born in two journeys away from the two greatest civilisations of the ancient world: Abraham’s from Mesopotamia, Moses’ and the Israelites’ from Pharaonic Egypt. The Torah is the world’s great protest against empires and imperialism. There are many dimensions to this protest. One dimension is the protest against the attempt to justify social hierarchy and the absolute power of rulers in the name of religion. Another is the subordination of the masses to the state – epitomised by the vast building projects, first of Babel, then of Egypt, and the enslavement they entailed. A third is the brutality of nations in the course of war (the subject of Amos’ oracles against the nations). Undoubtedly, though, the most serious offence – for the prophets as well as the Mosaic books – was the use of power against the powerless: the widow, the orphan and, above all, the stranger.
To be a Jew is to be a stranger. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was why Abraham was commanded to leave his land, home and father’s house; why, long before Joseph was born, Abraham was already told that his descendants would be strangers in a land not their own; why Moses had to suﬀer personal exile before assuming leadership of the people; why the Israelites underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience – the retelling of the story on Passover, along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of their collective memory.
It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate. Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.
The Torah asks, why should you not hate the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.
 Bava Metzia 59b.
 Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:16, 29.
 Ramban, commentary to Exodus 22:22.
 Ohr HaĤayim, commentary to Exodus 22:20.
 See Moshe Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995).
 The verb barbarízein in ancient Greek meant imitating the linguistic sounds non- Greeks made, or making grammatical errors in Greek.
From My Jewish Learning
The Slave Wife
By highlighting the shadowy woman in the background, we get a rare, ironic glimpse of the dilemma of slavery in the Bible.
BY RACHEL ADLER
Parashat Mishpatim contains the Torah ’s first law collection, which–unlike all other ancient Near-Eastern law collections–begins with regulations concerning slavery. The Torah seems unable to imagine an economy without slaves, but it frowns upon Hebrew slavery. Consequently, for Israelites in debt, Exodus 21:2-6 prescribes indentured servitude, but limited to six years. If a man enters debt-slavery while married, the master must let his wife go when he is released. However, if the master gives him a slave wife, the master retains the wife and children. What happens if the debt-slave declares, “I love my master and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free” (21:5)? He then has his earlobe pierced with an awl, and he becomes a slave in perpetuity, which the Rabbis interpret to mean until the Jubilee, or fiftieth, year.
Liberal readers are often sympathetic to this noble fellow who relinquishes his freedom to stay with his slave wife and children. But how would this case look from the perspective of the slave wife? I will argue that it looks much different. Who is this slave woman? She is not the amah ivriyah (Hebrew indentured servant) the text speaks about in 21:7-12. In that case, a girl has been sold by a presumably impoverished Israelite parent into a wealthier family on the understanding that she will eventually be married to the master or one of his sons as a free woman. This practice is well attested in other ancient Near Eastern documents. Should the man take another wife, he must continue to support her. An Israelite woman may not be resold if her owner is displeased with her; instead, she must go free without any compensation to the master. Her servitude, too, is time limited.
In contrast, the slave woman in Exodus 21:5-6 is most likely a foreign bondswoman. As a non-Israelite, she will not become part of the master’s family, and her slavery is perpetual, not limited. As property, she and a male Israelite slave can be mated by the master to breed more slaves, which cannot be done to an Israelite handmaiden. The foreign bondswoman does not choose her husband and cannot reject him. Both he and her children can be taken from her. As we learn from Exodus 21:20, 26-27, her very body is at risk, for masters may beat their own slaves without legal interference as long as they do not kill them or destroy a major body part. (Slave narratives from different parts of the world confirm that slaves were, and are, routinely battered and then expected to work. They may work less efficiently, but historically this has not been a sufficient disincentive to masters. The law cannot be said to permit battery of slaves; it is simply uninterested in such battery unless it results in major damage or death.)
While the Israelite slave must be freed at the start of the seventh year, how might the foreign bondswoman obtain her freedom? There are three options: First, she could save money given to her as a reward or a wage. If, with her owner’s permission, she contracts herself out for pay after finishing her other work, she might be able to accumulate money to buy her freedom. Mesopotamian records show that slaves were able to gain extra money as artisans and agents (see Gregory Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East); this practice might have existed in ancient Israel as well. Second, she could run away. Deuteronomy 23:16-17 says that a fugitive slave may not be returned to the owner. Third, an Israelite slave husband once released could buy his slave wife and children and free them. African-American history shows examples of former slaves who bought spouses and children or arranged for them to be secretly stolen and led to freedom. Harriet Tubman, whose code name was “Moses,” had a long career of gathering slaves and leading them North. Implicit in these narratives is a desperate determination to be free.
In contrast, what does the Israelite slave husband accomplish by pledging himself to perpetual slavery? When he declares that he loves his wife and children, it is not a happy, free family he is talking about. He cannot insure that his family will remain intact. His wife and children could be sold at any time. Even when his family is united, all will suffer the terrible humiliations of slavery: lack of choice, being objectified as property, being brutalized without recourse. Will the slave-wife appreciate his sinking into helplessness and hopelessness alongside her, especially if she was counting on his determination to free her once he was freed?
What Kind of Love is the Love for One’s Master?
When the debt-slave professes his love for his master (whom he mentions before his slave family in v. 5), what kind of love is this? It is a love of dependency, of not having to make decisions, of not having to struggle for a living, to choose a wife, or take responsibility for one’s children. Beyond that, embracing slavery undoes the liberation from Egypt and rejects the liberating God. In BT Kiddushin 22b, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai explains why this man’s ear is pierced with an awl: “The Holy One says, ‘The ear that heard on Mount Sinai when I said, ‘the people of Israel are my servants and not servants of servants’ and went and got himself a human master, let that ear be pierced.”’
The bondswoman is not where she is because she volunteered to be a slave. Most likely, she is a captive taken in war, well schooled in the corrosive bitterness of slavery. She might see the Hebrew slave’s renunciation of freedom not as a romantic gesture, but as a naive, even stupid one. He has surrendered his power to free her or their children. He may have been her best chance for freedom.
The Torah is truthful with us, although that truth does not always make us happy. Ancient Near Eastern law could not imagine a world without slavery; yet Israelite law wanted the people to remain free of all human appropriation. That dilemma resulted in the preservation of this vignette about the conflicting loyalties of the Israelite slave. By highlighting the shadowy woman in the background, we get a rare, ironic glimpse of the dilemma from her usually invisible point of view.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
From My Jewish Learning
We Are The Narrative
In the shift from narrative to law, we become the actors performing the narrative of liberation.
BY RABBI DIANNE COHLER-ESSES
Every year at this time it happens: I become disappointed in the Torah . Thunder and lightning and voices of revelation at Sinai are followed by the plodding specificity of the civil and religious laws of Mishpatim. The Torah goes from narrative to endless laws and detailed instructions for a good portion of the remainder of the five books.
A Real Thud
Going from Yitro to Mishpatim we come down the mountain with a real thud. Gone are the salacious family stories of Genesis and the dramatic national birth story of Exodus. Starting with this week’s Torah portion, sitting in synagogue week after week, one can hear yawns all around. What happened to the joy of sheer story? Why do we move from aggadah (narrative) to halacha (law)?
To complicate matters further: after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?
One can understand this shift from Sinai to laws concerning slavery in two interrelated ways:
Misphatim begins with the following law: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free.” (Exodus 21:2)
It’s almost as if they are given a law in which they are commanded to transform, to revolutionize their own consciousness. You can own a slave, but after seven years, you must set that slave free. You were a slave, and now you will be a master. And as a master you must liberate. As God liberated you, so must you set your slave free — a clear example of tzelem elokim (being created in the image of God), or to put it another words, imatatio dei (the imitation of God).
A Shift from Narrative to Law
The shift from narrative to law begins to have meaning in the context of this same shift of power. Until this point in the text we are told a story. We are watching these events happen to others. But, where story becomes law we are told how to live our lives. We are supremely implicated.
The very first law captures the story that the Israelites had just experienced, and yet, at the same point tells them to take control of that narrative and perform it themselves — perform exodus, perform liberation. You may be masters, but you must become liberators. Every seven years.
Indeed, the narrative that frames and shapes these laws, the narrative that gives these legal details coherence, is the narrative of liberation.
Consider for example the following verses:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20) and “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
This is what happened to the narrative. It didn’t disappear. Rather, shifting from narrative to law shifts the very nature of the text’s address. Beforehand we were reading a story that happened to others in history. Now I read the text, and I am commanded to become an actor and to act in a certain way. A way that liberates.
If I become the subject of these laws, the story doesn’t end at all. It’s just that I, the reader, I, the one addressed by this sacred text, am now at the very center of the story. It’s supremely personal. For much of the rest of the Bible we can no longer escape into a good story, because that story has become all about us. There is no escape, only exodus. Exodus and liberation. And the endless multiplying of story.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
From Rabbi David Kasher
WITCH HUNTING – Parshat Mishpatim
Wandering through a dense forest of laws, we come upon a witch.
Parshat Mishpatim, sometimes referred to as the Covenant Code, is a long list of laws given to Moses directly after the revelation at Mount Sinai. Unlike the grand moral statements of the Ten Commandments, these are mostly nitty-gritty case laws meant to regulate a well-functioning civil society. So we have, for example: laws governing marital obligations, restitution for physical assault, punishments for theft, and fines for various forms of damage – including the oft-cited case of one ox goring another ox. These are the sorts of classic cases first-year students still study in law schools today.
And then, out of nowhere, comes a pronouncement that reads more like a sign on the road to a haunted house:
Do not let a witch live! (Exod. 22:17)
מְכַשֵּׁפָה לֹא תְחַיֶּה
A witch? I didn’t think Jews even believed in witches – and now we have to kill them?! This eerie command seems out of place in a body of laws meant to guide basic social conduct. What is it doing here?
If the appearance of witches in the Torah wasn’t surprising enough in itself, there are also some more specific oddities in this verse. For though in the Hebrew it is only three words long, at least two of them are unusually phrased:
1. A machshefa is specially a woman who practices witchcraft. But why does the verse focus only on female witches? A man can be a witch, too – and in fact, when the prohibition against witchcraft is repeated in Deuteronomy (18:10), the verse there mentions a male witch, a mechashef. Frankly, as a matter of grammar, Hebrew defaults to the male noun form as a base; so if our witch is a woman, it is pointedly so. Why?
2. Then, we are told lo tichiyeh – “do not let her live.” That is not the typical way that the Torah invokes the death penalty. We would have expected it to say tumat, “she shall be put to death.” In fact, the very next verse – a prohibition against bestiality – takes exactly that form: the perpetrator “shall be put to death.” So why, with our witch, is the verse phrased in the negative: “do not let her live”?
Let’s try to answer the first question first. Why specifically a female witch? It is true that witches are almost always female in the popular imagination. But is that an assumption that the Torah carries as well? Rashi seems to think so. He writes:
Do not let a witch live – …this could refer to male or female witches. But the verse speaks as things usually are, and women are more often engaged in witchcraft.
מכשפה לא תחיה: …ואחד זכרים ואחד נקבות, אלא שדבר הכתוב בהווה שהנשים מצויות מכשפות
So Rashi notes that the verse deliberately chooses the case of a female witch, but he assumes – like most literature and movies on the subject – that this is simply because witches are almost always women.
The trouble is, in the literature of the Hebrew Bible, this does not seem to be the case. In fact, the only people actually named as witches in the Torah and the later books of the prophets and writings, are men! Pharaoh has a team of “wise men and witches” whom he summons to combat Moses and Aaron (Exod. 7:10). Nebuchadnezzar, in the Book of Daniel (2:2), also turns to “sorcerers, magicians, and witches,” to interpret his dreams. All of these figures are male.
It is true that Queen Jezebel, a generally wicked character, is accused of practicing, “much witchcraft,” (2 Kings 9:22), but it would be a stretch to call her “a witch,” and we certainly have no record of her conjuring. The only woman in the Tanakh who actually seems to engage in forbidden divinations – though she is also not explicitly called a witch – appears in a strange story in the Book of Samuel.
King Saul, we are told there, had outlawed all manner of sorcery and witchcraft, in accordance with the laws we see in the Torah. But now he finds himself in a terrible dilemma, battling both David and the Philistines, and he has no idea how to proceed. So he calls on his men to, “Find me a woman who is a master of spirits, so that I can go to her and seek answers through her.” Saul wants to commune with the very forces he has outlawed. But he knows that if he shows up as himself, she will think it is a test of her fidelity to the law and refuse to perform her services. So, he puts on a disguise, goes to her door, and says:
“Please conjure me up a spirit. Bring up for me the one I will name to you.” But the woman answered him “You know what Saul has done, how he has banned consultation with spirits and ghosts throughout the land! So why are you laying a trap for me, to get me killed?” But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, you won’t get into trouble over this.” And so the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” (1 Samuel 28:8-11)
וַיֹּאמֶר,קָסֳמִי נָא לִי בָּאוֹב, וְהַעֲלִי לִי, אֵת אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלָיִךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֵלָיו, הִנֵּה אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה שָׁאוּל, אֲשֶׁר הִכְרִית אֶת הָאֹבוֹת וְאֶת-הַיִּדְּעֹנִי, מִן הָאָרֶץ; וְלָמָה אַתָּה מִתְנַקֵּשׁ בְּנַפְשִׁי, לַהֲמִיתֵנִי. וַיִּשָּׁבַע לָהּ שָׁאוּל, בַּה לֵאמֹר: חַי ה, אִם-יִקְּרֵךְ עָוֹן בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה. וַתֹּאמֶר, הָאִשָּׁה, אֶת מִי, אַעֲלֶה לָּך
What a strange story! At first Saul seems to actively promote the ban against witchcraft, and even – judging from the woman’s fear – to impose the death penalty for it. But when he personally wants to make use of a witch, he hides his identity and goes off to do it in secret. It is she who resists and cites the law. But he reassures her, promising the protection of his power, and coaxes her into using the dark arts. He is both the condemner and the consumer of witchcraft.
If this is the only Biblical example we have of actual witchcraft, how can it be reconciled with our original law in the Torah? Is King Saul a faithful follower of that commandment, or does he secretly disregard its validity? Or is he just a hypocrite – moralizing to everyone else, but willing to bend the rules for himself?
This confusing story seems to have brought us no closer to answering our question about why the Torah speaks of witches in the feminine – not to mention why it was so concerned with witches to begin with.
The key to understanding all of this, I believe, can be found in a clue from the brilliant commentary of the Ibn Ezra on our verse in Exodus. He writes:
The reason for mentioning [the witch] after the Case of the Virgin is that those who lust after [young women] will use witchcraft to seek fulfillment of their desires.
מכשפה – טעם להזכיר זה אחר הבתולה כי המתאוים יתאוו דרך כשפים למלאת תאוותם
The Ibn Ezra tries to see the witch law in the context of its neighboring cases, and he is right, the one just previous speaks of a man who seduces an unmarried young virgin. So he presumes there is some relationship between the two cases. What is remarkable here, however, is the way the Ibn Ezra draws a link between coercive male sexual desire and the attempt to engage women in covert acts of sorcery. In both cases, it is men who attempt to draw women into dangerous acts of transgression, flaunting social norms which they might publicly affirm, in order to fulfill their own personal, private needs.
The King Saul case, then, becomes a perfect illustration of how this kind of abuse of social power might work. A man institutes a public prohibition, condemning women who practice some illicit act. Then, the same man solicits that very act from a woman, thereby drawing her into a vulnerable situation, where she might suffer degradation, or even violence.
The Torah includes the prohibition on witchcraft, then, along with the case of the seduced virgin, not so much out of an anxiety around occultism, but as one of a series of cases that illustrate the way men lure women into illicit, secret agreements, even as they might publicly condemn such behavior. That explains the Torah’s choice to describe the witch as female.
It also helps us makes sense of the other linguistic oddity in the verse: the wording of the command to “not let her live,” rather than to “put her to death.” For if the verse is speaking to men in positions of social power, the primary concern is not so much with the punishment of the women who practice witchcraft as it is with the men who, like Saul, call it forth, and thus “let it live.” The Torah is calling out the hypocrisy of a society of men who would openly denounce certain kinds of behavior, but are in fact the very reason such practices exist. If these men truly wish to live in a society without witchcraft, rather than going out and hunting down the sins of others, they ought to work on controlling the spirits within themselves that give these forces life.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
God’s Nudge (Mishpatim 5777)
First in Yitro there were the Aseret Hadibrot, the “ten utterances” or general principles. Now in Mishpatim come the details. Here is how they begin:
If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything . . . But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. (Ex. 21:2-6)
There is an obvious question. Why begin here? There are 613 commandments in the Torah. Why does Mishpatim, the first law code, begin where it does?
The answer is equally obvious. The Israelites have just endured slavery in Egypt. There must be a reason why this happened, for God knew it was going to happen. Evidently He intended it to happen. Centuries before He had already told Abraham it would happen:
As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. (Gen 15:12-13)
It seems that this was the necessary first experience of the Israelites as a nation. From the very start of the human story, the God of freedom sought the free worship of free human beings, but one after the other people abused that freedom: first Adam and Eve, then Cain, then the generation of the Flood, then the builders of Babel.
God began again, this time not with all humanity, but with one man, one woman, one family, who would become pioneers of freedom. But freedom is difficult. We each seek it for ourselves, but we deny it to others when their freedom conflicts with ours. So deeply is this true that within three generations of Abraham’s children, Joseph’s brothers were willing to sell him into slavery: a tragedy that did not end until Judah was prepared to forfeit his own freedom that his brother Benjamin could go free.
It took the collective experience of the Israelites, their deep, intimate, personal, backbreaking, bitter experience of slavery – a memory they were commanded never to forget – to turn them into a people who would no longer turn their brothers and sisters into slaves, a people capable of constructing a free society, the hardest of all achievements in the human realm.
So it is no surprise that the first laws they were commanded after Sinai related to slavery.
It would have been a surprise had they been about anything else. But now comes the real question. If God does not want slavery, if He regards it as an affront to the human condition, why did He not abolish it immediately? Why did He allow it to continue, albeit in a restricted and regulated way? Is it conceivable that God, who can produce water from a rock, manna from heaven, and turn sea into dry land, cannot change human behaviour? Are there areas where the All-Powerful is, so to speak, powerless?
In 2008 economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein published a fascinating book called Nudge. In it they addressed a fundamental problem in the logic of freedom. On the one hand freedom depends on not over-legislating. It means creating space within which people have the right to choose for themselves.
On the other hand, we know that people will not always make the right choices. The old model on which classical economics was based, that left to themselves people will make rational choices, turns out not to be true. We are deeply irrational, a discovery to which several Jewish academics made major contributions. The psychologists Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram showed how much we are influenced by the desire to conform, even when we know that other people have got it wrong. The Israeli economists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, showed how even when making economic decisions we frequently miscalculate their effects and fail to recognise our motivations, a finding for which Kahneman won the Nobel Prize.
How then do you stop people doing harmful things without taking away their freedom? Thaler and Sunstein’s answer is that there are oblique ways in which you can influence people. In a cafeteria, for example, you can put healthy food at eye level and junk food in a more inaccessible and less noticeable place. You can subtly adjust what they call people’s “choice architecture.”
That is exactly what God does in the case of slavery. He does not abolish it, but He so circumscribes it that He sets in motion a process that will foreseeably, even if only after many centuries, lead people to abandon it of their own accord.
A Hebrew slave is to go free after six years. If the slave has grown so used to his condition that he wishes not to go free, then he is forced to undergo a stigmatising ceremony, having his ear pierced, which thereafter remains as a visible sign of shame. Every Shabbat, slaves cannot be forced to work. All these stipulations have the effect of turning slavery from a lifelong fate into a temporary condition, and one that is perceived to be a humiliation rather than something written indelibly into the human script.
Why choose this way of doing things? Because people must freely choose to abolish slavery if they are to be free at all. It took the reign of terror after the French Revolution to show how wrong Rousseau was when he wrote in The Social Contract that if necessary people have to be forced to be free. That is a contradiction in terms, and it led, in the title of J. L. Talmon’s great book on the thinking behind the French revolution, to totalitarian democracy.
God can change nature, said Maimonides, but He cannot, or chooses not to, change human nature, precisely because Judaism is built on the principle of human freedom. So He could not abolish slavery overnight, but He could change our choice architecture, or in plain words, give us a nudge, signalling that slavery is wrong but that we must be the ones to abolish it, in our own time, through our own understanding. It took a very long time indeed, and in America, not without a civil war, but it happened.
There are some issues on which God gives us a nudge. The rest is up to us.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
By: Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits,
Assistant Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Laws and What Lies Beneath Them
Torah Reading: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 34:8-23 33:25,26
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, marks a shift from readings characterized by rich and compelling stories, to a section entirely composed of concrete rules and regulations. Among the fifty plus laws we shall read this week, is a deceptively simple commandment that insists,
“When you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? – You will surely help him,” (Exodus 23:15).
This law’s objective, at first glance, seems to be basic. Israelites must treat each other fairly and decently regardless of any personal animosity. Indeed, the verse clearly avoids condemning the emotion of hatred, as long as one’s conduct remains within certain boundaries.
Despite the (seeming) clarity of the Torah here, the Midrash isn’t satisfied with this law and its very rational limits. It tries to imagine what might happen after the account described above, and continues where the Torah leaves off by envisioning these two adversaries speaking to one another while hard at work unpacking the overburdened beast. “Will you move this heavy object over there? Please put that object here, etc.” As they proceed in their task – in this imagined expansion of the Torah’s terse words – the two (former) enemies slowly begin to engage in friendly banter. Finally, as the Midrash tells it, with the task completed, a friendship is born between these two and they head to an inn to break bread together.
Among the many things I love about this Midrash, is its inversion of a classic rabbinic principle, “Don’t disparage a mitzvah done for personal gain, for it might eventually become one motivated by higher purposes – mitoch she lo lishmah ba lishmah.” However here, the original motivation to help one’s rival is not personal gain, but scrupulous attention to the Torah’s laws. It’s only later that these two lose themselves in the act of fulfilling God’s law, and find some pleasure in the commandments. According to the Midrash, it is the joy of friendship, that seemingly humble conclusion to the tale that is the real purpose of the law in Mishpatim. While the Torah never commands us to stop hating, it will insist that we work together with our adversaries, and in that concrete regulation, plant the possibility of community and connection.
As our Torah reading calendar moves from narrative to commandment, may all of us, followers of both American and Jewish legal traditions, be blessed with the transformative experience of living a life governed by just and sacred rules, and may that commitment to lawful living help create deep and rich connections, both within our Jewish community, and in our broader civic life as well.
Doing and Hearing (Mishpatim 5776)
One of the most famous phrases in the Torah makes its appearance in this week’s parsha. It has often been used to characterise Jewish faith as a whole. It consists of two words: na’aseh venishma, literally, “we will do and we will hear” (Ex. 24:7). What does this mean and why does it matter?
There are two famous interpretations, one ancient, the other modern. The first appears in the Babylonian Talmud, where it is taken to describe the enthusiasm and whole-heartedness with which the Israelites accepted the covenant with God at Mount Sinai. When they said to Moses, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will hear”, they were saying, in effect: Whatever God asks of us, we will do – saying this before they had heard any of the commandments. The words “We will hear”, imply that they had not yet heard – not the Ten Commandments, or the detailed laws that followed as set out in our parsha. So keen were they to signal their assent to God that they agreed to His demands before knowing what they were.
This reading, adopted also by Rashi in his commentary to the Torah, is difficult because it depends on reading the narrative out of chronological sequence (using the principle that “there is no before and after in the Torah”). The events of chapter 24, on this interpretation, happened before chapter 20, the account of the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments. Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and Ramban all disagree and read the chapters in chronological sequence. For them, the words na’aseh venishma mean not, “we will do and we will hear”, but simply, “we will do and we will obey.”
The second interpretation – not the plain sense of the text but important nonetheless – has been given often in modern Jewish thought. On this view na’aseh venishma means, “We will do and we will understand.” From this they derive the conclusion that we can only understand Judaism by doing it, by performing the commands and living a Jewish life. In the beginning is the deed. Only then comes the grasp, the insight, the comprehension.
This is a signal and substantive point. The modern Western mind tends to put things in the opposite order. We seek to understand what we are committing ourselves to before making the commitment. That is fine when what is at stake is signing a contract, buying a new mobile phone, or purchasing a subscription, but not when making a deep existential commitment. The only way to understand leadership is to lead. The only way to understand marriage is to get married. The only way to understand whether a certain career path is right for you is to actually try it for an extended period. Those who hover on the edge of a commitment, reluctant to make a decision until all the facts are in, will eventually find that life has passed them by. The only way to understand a way of life is to take the risk of living it. So: na’aseh venishma, “We will do and eventually, through extended practice and long exposure, we will understand.”
In my Introduction to this year’s Covenant and Conversation, I suggested a quite different third interpretation, based on the fact that the Israelites are described by the Torah as ratifying the covenant three times: once before they heard the commandments and twice afterward. There is a fascinating difference between the way the Torah describes the first two of these responses and the third:
The people all responded together, “We will do [na’aseh] everything the Lord has said.” (Ex. 19:8)
When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do [na’aseh].” (Ex. 24:3)
Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do and hear [na’aseh ve-nishma] everything the Lord has said.” (Ex. 24:7)
The first two responses, which refer only to action (na’aseh), are given unanimously. They people respond “together”. They do so “with one voice”. The third, which refers not only to doing but also to hearing (nishma), involves no unanimity. “Hearing” here means many things: listening, paying attention, understanding, absorbing, internalising, responding and obeying. It refers, in other words, to the spiritual, inward dimension of Judaism.
From this, an important consequence follows. Judaism is a community of doing rather than of “hearing”. There is an authoritative code of Jewish law. When it comes to halakhah, the way of Jewish doing, we seek consensus.
By contrast, though there are undoubtedly principles of Jewish faith, when it comes to spirituality there is no single normative Jewish approach. Judaism has had its priests and prophets, its rationalists and mystics, its philosophers and poets. Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, speaks in a multiplicity of voices. Isaiah was not Ezekiel. The book of Proverbs comes from a different mindset than the books of Amos and Hosea. The Torah contains law and narrative, history and mystic vision, ritual and prayer. There are norms about how to act as Jews. But there are few about how to think and feel as Jews.
We experience God in different ways. Some find him in nature, in what Wordsworth called “a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused, / Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air.” Others find him in interpersonal emotion, in the experience of loving and being loved – what Rabbi Akiva meant when he said that in a true marriage, “the Divine presence is between” husband and wife.
Some find God in the prophetic call: “Let justice roll down like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). Others find Him in study, “rejoicing in the words of Your Torah … for they are our life and the length of our days; on them we will meditate day and night.” Yet others find Him in prayer, discovering that God is close to all who call on him in truth.
There are those who find God in joy, dancing and singing as did King David when he brought the Holy Ark into Jerusalem. Others – or the same people at different points in their life – find Him in the depths, in tears and remorse and a broken heart. Einstein found God in the “fearful symmetry” and ordered complexity of the universe. Rav Kook found Him in the harmony of diversity. Rav Soloveitchik found Him in the loneliness of being as it reaches out to the soul of Being itself.
There is a normative way of doing the holy deed, but there are many ways of hearing the holy voice, encountering the sacred presence, feeling at one and the same time how small we are yet how great the universe we inhabit, how insignificant we must seem when set against the vastness of space and the myriads of stars, yet how momentously significant we are, knowing that God has set His image and likeness upon us and placed us here, in this place, at this time, with these gifts, in these circumstances, with a task to perform if we are able to discern it. We can find God on the heights and in the depths, in loneliness and togetherness, in love and fear, in gratitude and need, in dazzling light and in the midst of deep darkness. We can find God by seeking Him, but sometimes He finds us when we least expect it.
That is the difference between na’aseh and nishma. We do the Godly deed “together”. We respond to His commands “with one voice”. But we hear God’s presence in many ways, for though God is One, we are all different, and we encounter Him each in our own way.
 Shabbat 88a-b.
 There are, of course, quite different interpretations of the Israelites’ assent. According to one, God “suspended the mountain over them,” giving them no choice but to agree or die (Shabbat 88a).
 The word already carries this meaning in biblical Hebrew as in the story of the tower of babel, where God says, come let us confuse their language so that people will not be able to understand their neighbour.
 This is the famous phrase from Goethe’s Faust.
 This is similar to the point made by Bernard Williams in his famous essay, ‘Moral Luck,’ that there are certain decisions – his example is Gauguin’s decision to leave his career and family and go to Tahiti to paint – about which we cannot know whether they are the right decision until after we have taken them and seen how they work out. All such existential decisions involve risk.
 This, incidentally, is the Verstehen approach to sociology and anthropology, namely that cultures cannot be fully understood from the outside. They need to be experienced from within. That is one of the key differences between the social sciences and the natural sciences.
From Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer
A Resounding Yes!
From American Jewish World Service
Rabbi Shai Held
Turning Memory into Empathy: The Torah’s Ethical Charge
This week’s Dvar Tzedek is written by guest scholar Rabbi Shai Held and is provided through a special arrangement with Mechon Hadar.
One of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility. Appealing to our experience of defenselessness in Egypt, the Torah seeks to transform us into people who see those who are vulnerable and exposed rather than looking past them.
Parashat Mishpatim contains perhaps the most well-known articulation of this charge: “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”1 By ger, the Torah means one who is an alien in the place where he lives—that is, one who is not a member of the ruling tribe or family, who is not a citizen, and who is therefore vulnerable to social and economic exploitation. The Torah appeals to our memory to intensify our ethical obligations: having tasted the suffering and degradation to which vulnerability can lead, we are bidden not to oppress the stranger. The Torah’s call is not based on a rational argument, but on an urgent demand for empathy: since you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse or mistreat the stranger.
This prohibition is so often cited that it’s easy to miss just how radical and non-obvious it is. The Torah could have responded quite differently to the experience of oppression in Egypt. It could have said: since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you? But it chooses the opposite path: since you were exploited and oppressed, you must never be among the exploiters and degraders. You must remember what it feels like to be a stranger. Empathy must animate and intensify your commitment to the dignity and well-being of the weak and vulnerable. And God holds you accountable to this obligation.
On one level, of course, the Torah is appealing to the collective memory of the Jewish people: the formative story around which we orient our collective life is about our harrowing sojourn in Egypt and our eventual miraculous redemption by God. We should not oppress the stranger because we as a people remember what oppression can mean. But I would argue that we should also individually personalize the Torah’s demand that we remember. Each of us is obligated, in the course of our lives, to remember times when we have been exploited or abused by those who had power over us. (Such experiences are blessedly rare for some people. Tragically, they are part of the daily bread of others.) From these experiences, the Torah tells us, we are to learn compassion and kindness.
It may be tempting to imagine a Manichean world in which the “good guys” learn compassion from experiences of vulnerability and suffering, while the “bad guys” learn only hostility and xenophobia. But it is far more honest, I think, to wrestle with the ways that each of us often has both responses at the same time: part of us responds to the experience of suffering by wanting to make sure that no one else has to endure what we did, but another part of us feels entitled and above reproach: if you had been through what I’ve been through, we can hear ourselves saying, you would understand that I don’t owe anybody anything. As contemporary writer Leon Wieseltier once remarked of the Jewish people, “The Holocaust enlarged our Jewish hearts, and it shrunk them.” The Torah challenges us to nurture and cultivate the compassionate response and to make sure that the raging, combative one never becomes an animating principle of our lives.
Where Exodus commands us not to oppress the stranger and ties that obligation to the ways memory can be harnessed to yield empathy, Leviticus goes further, moving from a negative commandment (lo ta’aseh) to a positive one (aseh): “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.”2 With these startling words, we have traveled a long distance; we are mandated to actively love the stranger. A lot can be (and has been) said about what the commandment to love the neighbor3 does and doesn’t mean in Leviticus, but one thing is clear: the love we owe to our neighbor we also owe to the stranger who resides among us. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is famously asked about the reach of the obligation to love your neighbor as yourself: “Who is my neighbor?”4 Leviticus anticipates the question and offers a stunning response: the stranger is your neighbor, and what you owe to your own kin you owe to her as well. The Torah forcefully makes clear that the poor and downtrodden, the vulnerable and oppressed, the exposed and powerless are all our neighbors. We are called to love even those who are not our kin, even those who do not share our socio-economic status, because, after all, we remember only too well what vulnerability feels like.
Deuteronomy subtly introduces still another dimension to our obligation to love the stranger. Along the way, it offers a remarkably moving lesson in theology:
For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.5
The text begins by praising God as “great, mighty, and awesome. Of what does God’s greatness, mightiness, and awesomeness consist? According to these verses, not of God’s having created the world, and not of God’s having demonstrated God’s ability to smite God’s enemies. No, God’s grandeur is rooted in God’s fairness (“who shows no favor and takes no bribe”) and in God’s championing the oppressed and the downtrodden. This is reminiscent of a verse from Psalms that we recite every Shabbat and holiday morning. The verse begins, “All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You?’” What is the source of God’s incomparable greatness? Again, it is not raw power or might, but rather mercy and care for the vulnerable. “You save the poor from one stronger than he, the poor and needy from his despoiler.”6 The God Jews worship, in other words, is a God who cares for the distressed and persecuted.
All of this helps us to understand Deuteronomy’s presentation of our obligation to love the stranger. Here, loving the stranger is a form of “walking in God’s ways,” or what philosophers call imitatio dei (the imitation of God). Just as God “loves the stranger,” so also must we.7 The Torah here presents a radical challenge and obligation: If you want to love God, love those whom God loves. Love the fatherless, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In other words, Deuteronomy gives us two distinct but intertwined reasons for what lies at the heart of Jewish ethics: we must love the stranger both because of who God is and because of what we ourselves have been through.
Exodus teaches us the baseline requirement: not to oppress the stranger. Leviticus magnifies the demand: not only must we not oppress the stranger, we must actively love her. And Deuteronomy raises the stakes even higher: loving the stranger is a crucial form of “walking in God’s ways.”
Literature scholar Elaine Scarry hauntingly asserts that “the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.” By reminding us again and again of our vulnerability in Egypt, the Torah works to help us learn to imagine others more so that we allow ourselves to hurt them less.
The obligation to love and care for the stranger and the dispossessed is a basic covenantal requirement incumbent upon us as Jews. We surely have moral obligations which are incumbent upon us because of the simple fact that we are human beings. In its recurrent appeals to memory, the Torah seeks to amplify and intensify those obligations, to remind us, even when it is difficult to hear, that the fate of the stranger is our responsibility. This mandate may seem overwhelming at times, and its concrete implications may sometimes be difficult to discern. But loving the stranger is fundamental and lies at the heart of Torah. If we wish to take the obligation to serve God seriously, and to be worthy heirs of the Jewish tradition, we have no choice but to wrestle with these words, and to seek to grow in empathy and compassion.
1 Exodus 23:9; cf. 22:20.
2 Leviticus 19:33-34.
3 Leviticus 19:18.
4 Luke 10:29.
5 Deuteronomy 10:17-19.
6 Psalm 35:10.
7 Deuteronomy 10:18-19.
From The Maqam Project
Rabbi Toba August
Digging a Pit: What Falls In, and What Returns?
I love teaching Torah, and experiencing my students’ delight in learning is profoundly rewarding. Over the years I have used various methods of interpretation to make Torah relevant for contemporary learners. This week’s Parsha can be presented to students through rigorous intellectual study.
Following the Ten Commandments, the portion contains 53 seemingly unrelated laws. These “Mishpatim” – civil ordinances, include rulings about Hebrew slaves, goring oxen, taking bribes, ‘eye for an eye’, and much more. Though there seems to be no planned structure, an overarching theme is taking responsibility for your personal actions, caring for others and their animals and creating a safe and just public domain. These laws are pertinent in contemporary times and are the foundation for much of Jewish Halachah – law codes. Students enjoy applying the ancient teachings to present-day situations.
There is however, another approach, using Hasidic interpretations, which takes us away from the actual Peshat – literal and contextual meaning of the text, and help uncover a deeper introspective meaning. According to Rabbi Aryeh Wineman, “Hasidic homilists focus on psychological insight, and the Torah passage is read as an existential observation of human life, emotions, conflicts and growth in spiritual awareness.”[i]
An example of this type of Hasidic teaching is brought down by Rabbi Arthur Green in his latest book, from verses in our Parshah, Mishpatim:
If a person opens a pit, or digs a pit, and does not cover it and an ox . . . falls into it, the owner of the pit must make restitution. He shall return money to the owner, but the dead animal is his. (Exodus 21:33-34)
The 18th century Hasidic text, Noam Elimelech says that ‘opening the pit’ alludes to ‘wellsprings of awe and holiness that can be opened in people’s hearts, by teaching them Torah.’[ii]
‘Digging’ a pit is like ‘digging’ into people’s spirits, carving out wonder and devotion. These Torah verses about digging pits and falling oxen are saying that when a righteous teacher helps students learn the truths within Torah and come closer to God (by ‘digging’ into their hearts), the instructors will be rewarded. The kindness and good deeds of their students will be returned to them. This is the ‘restitution’ discussed in our verse.
The Hasidic text supports its explanation as it interprets the rabbinic saying: “Mah sh’yozeh min hal’ev, nichnas la’lev – Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” Noam Elimelech explains, “this can mean, the heart that the words came from – those same words enter back into it and increase the holiness within it.”
‘Digging a pit’ then is an allusion to the art of teaching and influencing others, and ‘making restitution’ becomes the impact the students have on their teacher.
As an instructor, I feel rewarded knowing that I enliven my students’ lives with holy learning, but did not often reflect on how much this process increased my own internal growth. One of the greatest rewards of teaching is the gifts that students offer. The ‘restitution’ the students give a teacher for opening the wellsprings in their hearts, opens up her heart even more! Shabbat Shalom.
Torah Reading for Week of February 12 -18, 2012
“Spreading the Light Through Action”
By Cantor Eva Robbins, ‘04
One of the most striking sections of this parsha is in the maftir, with the powerful words, “Umaray kavod Adonai k’aysh ochelet,” ”The appearance of the glory of Hashem was like a consuming fire.” This was my maftir, as a Bat Mitzvah. I could feel the warmth of the light wash over me as the burning presence inflamed the moment of my taking possession of Torah. As I reread these words and began to explore their deeper meaning, I was struck by the connection to the previous parsha, Yitro, when the people, “Saw the thunder and the flames,” “v’chol ha-am roim et kolot v’et halapidim” following the giving of the Asseret Dibrot. The word halapidim means a ‘torch’ while the word aysh means ‘fire.’ Why two different descriptions? Why do the people see a ‘torch’ after receiving the 10 commandments but later, as Moses enters the cloud, they see only the ‘fire.’ Further investigation of this word, whose root is lamed fey dalet, led me to Genesis 15:17, when G-d makes a covenant with Avram, promising him that he will father a nation that number the stars in the sky, and that they will inherit their own special land. As a sign of this covenant there was “a torch of fire,” “v’lapid aysh.” At both moments of covenantal relationship this Divine ‘torch’ is present.
We know from Rashi’s classic comment that when a parsha begins with a vav it is a signal that what is to come is directly connected to the previous parsha. Mishpatim begins ‘vaeyleh mishpatim,” “These are the ordinances,” which represents the civil laws man is to undertake, directly following the awesome experience of the ‘torch,’ as well as the initial instructions for the sacrificial cult. The people experience the gift of the ‘flame,’ the powerful ‘light’ of Divine presence, from the heavens above, which they are now instructed to ignite on the mizbeach, in the world below. This reciprocal relationship of receiving from above and returning from below is symbolic of the constant flow of blessing we receive and return to the Holy One. Mishpatim teaches us that it is not only through this spiritual flow that we stay connected to the Holy One. We must also concretize it through acts of civil obedience, creating a sense of fairness, honor and lawfulness in a society. The people are immediately confronted with the kind of actions they must undertake, in their everyday human interactions, in order to perpetuate that moment of intimate connection at Sinai.
The ‘torch’ is a container, a holder for the ‘flame,’ something that can be held, carried and directed. It represents the voice of the Holy One, as it says in Psalm 29:7, “The voice of Hashem cleaves with shafts of fire.” The ‘fire’ that is seen when Moses enters the cloud is no longer a ‘torch,’ it is pure flame, a consuming ‘fire.’ Bachyiah, a commentator of the Middle Ages, describes it as a ‘bonfire’ a ‘flame’ that varies in intensity. Each individual receives from the ‘light’ what he/she is capable of receiving. We become the ‘torch.’ Through our actions, we keep the ‘flame’ alive in this world. We decide how brightly it will glow. The laws are the means for maintaining the presence of the Holy One in this world and that in turn keeps the ‘flame’ of G-d’s spirit continually burning in the world above.
From Melissa Carpenter
Mishpatim: Passionate Arson
February 13, 2012
Last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, begins with the reunion of Moses and his father-in-law, then moves into the mind-bending revelation of God at Mount Sinai. This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (Laws) gives a long list of laws, then ends with a vision of God’s feet on a sapphire pavement. (See my blog “Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something”.)
I’m always tempted to rush straight from the vision of God as fire and thunder to the vision of God’s feet. But imagine someone who had two mystical experiences in a row, with no time in between to come down to earth. Their mental balance would be hard to recover. It would actually be a blessing to spend an interval on practical matters, in between mystical experiences. Maybe reading case law in between the stories of visions at Mount Sinai serves an analogous purpose for Torah scholars.
So this year I paid attention to the case law, and found one law that might addresses unbalancing mental states.
If a fire goes forth, and it finds thorn-bushes, a heap of grain or the standing grain, or the field, and they are consumed, the burner who starts the burning shall certainly make complete restitution. (Exodus/Shemot 22:5)
On a peshat (simple) level, this law refers to legal responsibility for negligence in a certain farming practice. On the next level of traditional Torah interpretation, remez (alluded extension), the Talmud tractate Baba Kama (60a) treats this law as a paradigm for all cases in which someone deploys a fire, an animal, a tool, or anything that is not fixed in place, and then it causes damage because the person did not keep it under control.
Going up another rung, at the level of drash (investigation), I see that the law embodies two ethical principles: that we should make every effort to avoid doing any harm through negligence; and that if it happens anyway, we must make restitution.
At the fourth level of Torah interpretation, sod (secrecy, intimacy), the verse speaks to our own psychological and spiritual condition. In the Torah, as in colloquial English, fire and burning are often used to describe human passions such as anger, or lust, or even an overwhelming longing for God. Any consuming passion is likely to get out of control. Unless people in the throes of passion pay attention and take special care, their negligence can result in significant damage, both to themselves and to others.
Let’s look at the verse again, to see what the fire of passion might consume.
If a fire goes forth, and it finds thorn-bushes, a stack of grain or the standing grain, or the field, and they are consumed, the burner who starts the burning shall certainly make complete restitution.
kotzim = thorn-bushes, thorns. (A verb with the same root is kutz = awaken; feel sick and tired of.)
gadish = a stack or heap of grain.
hakamah = the standing. (Standing grain is implied in a simple reading of the verse.)
hasadeh = the field (cultivated or open); the plot of land owned by an individual; the domain of a city.
bo-eirah = burning, kindling or maintaining a fire; sweeping away; being stupid as a cow.
In a reading at the sod level, if a fiery passion is not guarded, it first consumes thorn-bushes. Applied to your own soul, the burning anger or desire is at first beneficial, eating up those annoying, thorny habits of thought that you are sick and tired of. Your passion is so strong, it sweeps aside the inner voice that keeps saying “You’re not good enough”, or the one that always says, “It’ll never work”, or—well, we each have our own mental habits. When a passion sweeps them away, it feel as if you are waking up to a new and better self.
But your consuming passion also burns up the people around you who are thorns in our sides, the people whom you are sick and tired of. Speaking from rage, or passionate conviction, or overwhelming desire, you impatiently mow right over the people you find difficult. In the long run, this is not beneficial to either you or them.
Next, your inner conflagration burns up the grain you have cut and stacked for future nourishment. In the heat of the moment, preserving the other aspects of your life seems unimportant. All that matters is the pursuit of the object of your anger or desire. Yet if you are not careful, you can damage a relationship or a job or even your own body.
After that, the fire can destroy your own standing—both your reputation, and your uprightness or moral compass. It is tempting, in the heat of passion, to cross lines you would never cross in your cooler moments. And with uncontrolled, passionate speech, you may also destroy the reputation of others, or incite them to react in a way that they will feel guilty about later.
Finally, if your passion continues unchecked, you will cross the line in another way, failing to respect the boundary between yourself and another human being. The whole word looks as if it is lit with fire, so it all appears to be part of the same passion that is consuming you. Of course the person you are talking to feels the same way you do! Of course they want the same things! Of course they will do exactly what you want! Of course they will be happy if you make it easier for them to do what you want by interfering with their lives!
Most of us know about the hazards of unchecked anger or lust. Most of us do not want to be negligent when these passions seize us. We work on paying attention and controlling ourselves.
But the Torah focuses most often on the passionate desire for God, which rises like a flame. And the Torah’s most common metaphor for God is fire. Sometimes God manifests as a fire that does not consume, like the one Moses saw in the burning bush (which, by the way, was not a thorn-bush). But often God manifests in the Torah as a fire that does consume, and sometimes kills.
When we are filled with a passion that seems as if it comes from God, because we are burning for justice, or for a religious experience, that is when we are most in danger of being negligent and causing unforeseen damage to ourselves and others.
The law in this week’s Torah portion rules that the person who starts a fire and fails to control it must make complete restitution for all damages. But some damage cannot be repaired.
May each of us be blessed with the ability to pay attention when we feel any passion, even the most righteous passion, begin to consume us; to remain aware of everything we would normally consider; and to control our speech and our actions so we do no harm. May we burn brightly without consuming, and without being stupid as a cow.
Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim / Shabbat Shekalim / Birkat Hahodesh
February 18, 2012 / 25 Shevat 5772
By: Rabbi Ed Feinstein,
Lecturer in Rabbinics
Open Up in the Name of the Law
Torah Reading: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16
Haftarah Reading: II Kings 12:1-17
Among those who left Egypt, there were two of my ancestors – call them Berel and Shmerel. As slaves, these two had grown so accustomed to looking down at the ground they could no longer lift their eyes. And so when Moses brought Israel across the Red Sea, Berel asked Shmerel, “What do you see?” “I see mud,” he responded. “I see mud too. What’s all this about freedom? We had mud in Egypt, we have mud here!”
When Israel stood at Mt Sinai, Shmerel asked Berel, “What do you hear?” “I hear someone shouting commands,” he answered. “I hear commands too. What’s all this about Torah? They shouted commands in Egypt, they shout commands here!” Finally after forty years, when Israel arrived at the Promised land, Berel asked Shmerel, “How do you feel?” “My feet hurt,” he replied. “My feet hurt too. What’s all this about a Promised Land? My feet hurt in Egypt, my feet hurt here!”
So what did they do? They turned around and walked back to Egypt. Some say, they are wandering the wilderness to this day.
Removing the external chains of slavery doesn’t make a person free. The body is unfettered but the mind remains in bondage. “One of the great liabilities of life,” declared Martin Luther King in one of his last sermons, “is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
Freedom, in the Torah, comes in two parts: The exodus from Egyptian slavery and the revelation of law on Mt Sinai.
Why law? Law seems an odd place to find spirituality. Law is technical and dry. Law is about conflict and confrontation. Law is a restraint on the lowest parts of ourselves. In Western culture, law is an instrument for achieving social order — a way to keep us from killing one another.
Now consider a law from Maimonides’ Mishna Torah, Code of Jewish Law: You must give charity to the poor. You must give at least one tenth of your income, but may not give more than one fifth. When you give charity to the poor, the dignity of the poor must be respected. You may not humiliate the recipient of charity. Anonymous giving, where neither donor nor recipient are aware of one another’s identity, is best. Even better is to provide employment or business opportunity thus alleviating the need for further assistance.
Notice how this is phrased. It doesn’t say the poor have a right to receive charity. This isn’t an entitlement. It says you have an obligation. It is a mitzvah, a commandment. This is the core concept of Jewish law: You are obligated because you are covenanted.
This law speaks, not to the lowest in us, but to the highest. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord Your God am Holy.” The purpose of law in the Torah is to cultivate the holy, the compassionate, the just, the sensitive within us — to cultivate the divine within us. Law is educative. In Breshit Rabbah, the sage Rav taught: ” Does God really care how people slaughter animals for food? Does God care which animals a person eats and which he doesn’t eat? Mitzvot were given us only to purify us.” The mitzvah has a purpose. We must measure ourselves not solely on the care we take in fulfilling the mitzvah, but on the quality of change the mitzvah affects within us. The authority of mitzvah rests not only in its source in heaven, but in its effect on the human soul.
Law is a nexus between what is and what ought to be. Law rests upon a paradox: Because we’re human, we need law. Because we have drives, because we often forget who we are, because we have the ability to rationalize any behavior or attitude…in other words, because we’re human, we need law. But we can live up to the law only because we have the divine with us. Every “ought” implies a “can.” The commandment to be holy — to live a life of justice and compassion — is the strongest possible confirmation that we have the capacity to be holy. It is testimony that we have Godliness in us.
“The great danger facing all of us,” wrote the preacher Phillips Brooks, “is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life. Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning. The danger is that we shall fail to perceive life’s greatest meaning, fall short of its highest good, miss its deepest and most abiding happiness, be unable to tender the most needed service, be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God, and be content to have it so.
The danger is that we will wake up to find we’ve missed life itself. Satisfied too soon with too little — with a life that falls short of the best.
From Rabbi Yolles
This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, is in itself a codex of jurisprudence (Mishpatim=Judgements). It connects with the Parsha preceeding it to make us aware that while its mitszvot are logical and ethical, they are nonetheless G-dly and given on Mount Sinai.
The Parsha concludes with HaShem summoning Moshe Rabbeinu to ascend the mountain in order to receive the Torah She B’chtav and the Torah She B’al Pe, the written and oral Torah-all the Torah for all generations. It states (24,16) that “HaShem’s glory tested upon Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it six days and He called upon Moshe on the seventh day from the midst of the cloud.”
The Kli Yakar notes that it alludes to the holiness of the number seven like Shabbat.
It is not in passing the Shabbat is mentioned in the parsha, indeed the mitzvah of observing Shabbat is repeated in pasuk 23,12.
Shabbat is written in the Torah numerous times. It is very significant that again a number of times Shabbat is written in proximity to the construction of the Mishkan, or next to the subject Mishkan (Sanctuary). The Torah compares the Holiness of Shabbat to the Holiness of the Mishkan. Holiness in place, holiness in time, and it is connected to the soul of HaShem’s holy nation. You and us, all of us, at all times, for all time.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Mishpatim
Correcting Negative Patterns of Unethical Behavior
The reading begins “And these are the Mishpatim /ordinances that you shall set before them.” (21:1)
Mishpatim are the ethical and civil laws that govern our behavior towards our fellow human beings, a social contract, as it were.
The Zohar chooses this Parsha, from amongst all the other Torah readings, to explore the mystery of Reincarnation.
As a rule, our souls incarnate to reach our own actualization and individuation. Each subsequent reincarnation articulating another element of our soul.
Each incarnation is a completely different person with a different tikkun, meant to articulate a particular element of soul that has not yet been expressed.
There is one form of reincarnation however, where the totality of who you are and were in the past will reincarnate to create a Tikkun, a rectification for a past life. It is particularly the unfinished monetary issues and unethical dealings between people that require the totality of self to return and hopefully create repair.
Our goal is to fully articulate our particular aspect of soul within our lifetime, and not require a reincarnation of our unique self.
To this end, it is of utmost importance to rectify all negative patterns of unethical behavior that we might express in our lives. In our business dealings, and all other relationships, we must be extra cautious to be moral and honest and repair any unscrupulous behaviors.
The Energy of the Week:
Correcting Negative Patterns of Unethical BehaviorThis week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy to effect repair, or Tikkun, for interpersonal issues, particularly in regard to monetary dealings and any dishonorable financial behaviors.
Throughout the week it is important to be extra mindful when it comes to ethical dealings with others.
Try to recognize your negative patterns in regards to business/financial dealings and receive the energy of Mishpatim as an impetus to break out of these behaviors.
Rectifying these negative unethical patterns will ensure a complete tikkun in our lifetime and an ability for our soul to move forward in this life and the next.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
They saw the God of Israel
they had a vision of God
in their chests
then they ate and drank. [Ex.24:9]
If we feel God everywhere
in our chests
on the mountain top
God in the Torah
God in the kitchen
God waiting for the bus –
Torah Reading for Week of February 7 – February 13, 2010
“The Wholeness of the Law”
by Rabbi Michael Menitoff, PhD
AJR,CA, Professor of Jewish Thought and Law
The Sabbath of Mishpatim (February 13th) is also known as Shabbat Shekalim. It is the first of the Arba Parashiyot, Four Special Sabbaths, spread out over more than a month-and-a-half, leading up to the observance of the festival of Pesach. On this Shabbat, we also recite Birkat Hachodesh, the Blessing of the New Month of Adar, in which the holiday of Purim is celebrated. Thus, the liturgy and the lection make this Shabbat a rich and textured one, in which many aspects of the Jewish calendar are co-mingled with the regular Scriptural portion. What is recited this Shabbat represents the integration of Jewish life and law, and the inextricable link of each part to the whole.
The portion of Mishpatim itself conveys a similar sense of that connectedness . Its proliferation of social, ethical and ritual laws, side by side one another, argues for the unbreakable bond between them. The numerous mitzvot in Mishpatim can be subsumed under the rubrics of those “between a human being and G-d” and “between one human being and another.” It is hard to envisage authentic Jewish living without striving for the fulfillment of both categories of mitzvot.
To celebrate holidays and perform ceremonial commandments without concomitant sensitivity in interpersonal relationships is limiting and incomplete. On the other hand, the observance of ritual mitzvot is part of what makes us Jews. At their best, these laws help make us better people. For example, understanding and keeping the laws of Kashrut (dietary laws) potentially raises our awareness of the sanctity of life. Observing Shabbat offers opportunity, in an otherwise hectic week, to reflect on relationships with family and friends, and to take appropriate remedial action, if need be.
The Rabbis even comment on the broader linkage between the laws of Mishpatim and other commandments, specifically those which precede it. Scrutinizing the meaning of every letter and word, they ask, ” Why does the portion of Mishpatim, in the original Hebrew, begin with ‘And these are the commandments’ rather than simply ‘These are the commandments?'” Why does the Hebrew letter “vav,” meaning “and,” attach itself to the first word? The answer to their question, as reported by the commentator Rashi, originally in Mechilta Nezikin, is that, just as the laws of the previous portion of Yitro, The Ten Commandments, were given at Sinai, so too were the numerous, detailed, and specific laws of Mishpatim. The latter are of no less weight and gravity than the Decalogue itself. They are seamlessly bound together. They are a single unit.
The Talmud (B’rachot 12a) informs us that The Ten Commandments were originally recited at every Morning Service. However, that practice was discontinued because of “the insinuations of the Minim (heretics)” that, while The Ten Commandments were revealed at Sinai and require scrupulous observance, other laws are of lesser or secondary importance.
Today, congregations render homage to The Ten Commandments by standing when they are read. Nevertheless, we view them in their fuller context. They are part of an integrated whole which includes, but is not limited to Mishpatim. “They are our light and the length of our days.” All are Torah.
From Reb Sholom Brodt
A lesson in kindness
Shmos 22:24-26: When you will lend money to [the people of] My nation, to the poor one with you, do not be unto him like a usurer [a biter*], do not impose a bite [interest] upon him. Should you surely* take the garment of your friend as collateral, you must return it to him for the duration of the day until the sun sets. For that is his only garment, it is his garment with which to cover his skin; what shall he sleep with?** and it shall be that when he cries out to me I will listen, for I Am compassionate.
*the usurer is described by the word ‘noshe’- the literal meaning of ‘noshe’ is ‘one who bites’ and so Rashi explains that you should not forcibly demand payment of the loan; do not act towards him as if ‘you lent him money’, but rather as if you did not lend him – meaning to say: do not embarrass him!
** ‘a bite’- interest, which is similar to the bite of a snake which at first makes but a small bite in one’s foot and is hardly felt, and then [as if] suddenly it swells up and goes all the way to his head, so too with interest: [at first] he does not feel it nor notice it until the interest amounts to a great sum and causes him to lose a lot of money.
***Said the Holy One blessed is He, “[consider] how much you owe Me and consider that your soul ascends to Me every night, night after night, and admits its guilt before Me, and I return her to you; so too shall you do- [you may] take the collateral and [you must] return it [as often as necessary].
Environmental Insights From The Torah: Parshat Mishpatim
Reb Shaul Judelman
Co-ordinator- Torah and Ecology Program, Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo
Ahh, Parshat Mishpatim, finally I get to hear what Hashem wants from me in this world. After some of the most synesthetic transcendental revelations, showing us so clearly and “beyondly” that Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, we at long last get what some of our Hebrew school teachers told us this Torah is, a book of laws, guiding how to live in THIS world…
That being the case, then for a person seeking to learn how to live in harmony with this world, parshat Mishpatim must have a lot in store. How to live a life reflecting that Hashem is One. And indeed it does. The verse says that:
Verse 33: If a man uncovers a pit, or if a man digs a pit, and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it; Verse 34: The owner of the pit must pay. He must compensate its owner with money, and the dead [animal] remains in the possession [of its owner].
Lets look at Rashi:
The owner of the pit. [This means:] the one who instigated the damage. Even though the pit does not belong to him, i.e., where he made it in the public domain, [nevertheless] the Torah considers him the owner for the purpose of making him liable for damages.
Rashi finds it necessary to explain why the Torah calls the digger the “pit’s owner,” even though the pit, being in the public area, did not belong to him. Rashi says that the damages caused by his action confer upon him a level of ownership. While the pit might not be his, its potential to damage is his. He is the “owner of, and responsible party for the damage done by his creation. The implications of this Torah understanding – that I own the damaging potential in my actions, even when they’ve left my control – is radical. What happens to the garbage when it leaves my house, or the toxic chemicals used in my household cleaners when they go down the drain? The garbage produced in and disposed of from my house is no less subject to scrutiny than the words leaving my mouth the Torah demands I watch vigilantly.
May we be blessed with the foresight and awareness to be responsible owners of our physical and spiritual actions. May we learning to create and dispose in ways that further life and joy around us…
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
The Israelites are given and accept a series of laws to live by.
MISHPATIM BLESSES US with the power of discernment, as we attempt to live our lives in balance with Divine justice and love. We are blessed with the holy task of being present, vigilant, and kind, that our actions might be in agreement with the vision of wholeness and connection that we received at Sinai.
We embark upon this holy task in the context of the value system of our particular culture, time and place. The Torah gives us an example of a people struggling to express a loving and exacting justice in their world. In order to follow the example of our ancestors, we must discern the principles of justice and apply them in OUR lives and in OUR world. For instance:
“If you take a neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you must
restore it to him before nightfall because that’s his only
covering and where is he going to sleep? When he cries
to me I will hear, for I am gracious.”1
In other words, kindness supersedes the rules of property. Empathy for the neighbor who might shiver through a cold night is what is really important. We are given the assignment of being God’s ears as we listen for and respond to the cries of the poor and oppressed. Whenever we resort to the logic of “what’s mine is mine,” God reminds us that “All the Earth is Mine.”
Mishpat is usually translated as “rule,” “judgment,” or “ordinance.” When I encounter this word, I understand it as “impeccability.” When the Toltec Shaman, Don Juan, cautions Carlos Castaneda that he must be impeccable, he is trying to impress upon his student the utmost importance of staying alert and aware of the consequences of one’s actions. Every word and deed ripples out to affect the whole – so the welfare of the whole must be considered.
This consideration extends through time as well as space. How will my actions benefit or harm generations to come?
We are blessed with the responsibility of being scrupulous with what we consume, what we waste, and how our lives impact the planet. This responsibility helps us to stay awake and aware of our potential to destroy as well as create. Mishpatim strips us of any excuses for cruelty or apathy. Even our enemy may count on our help when she is in need.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
WHEN A MITZVAH IS REPEATED in the Torah, it’s a sign to pay close attention. When it is repeated 36 times, we know that not only is that mitzvah important; but it stands as a central spiritual challenge on our journey. We are commanded not to wrong or oppress the stranger. This mitzvah appears twice in Mishpatim. The first time we see this commandment we are charged to keep it because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
This reasoning does not quite hold. Those who suffer oppression often themselves go on to oppress others. Whatever hurt I suffer becomes the source of my destructive powers. The wound that is layered over with scar tissue makes me insensitive to the suffering of others. To acknowledge the pain of others, I would once again have to feel my own.
Parents who abuse their children have most likely been abused themselves. The chain of suffering continues. Each subsequent generation seeks revenge for the misfortune it has endured. We inherit the myth of “good guys” and “bad guys” so that we know exactly who to blame. The stranger in our midst is always a likely target. We are caught in this cycle of oppression in which our suffering festers and grows inside us, becoming a weapon of continued blame and retribution. Yet the spiritual challenge remains: How can I transform my suffering into compassion for the stranger?
We receive this commandment again in the very next chapter; this time it comes with further clarification. “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The clarifying phrase – “ve-atem yedatem et nefesh ha- ger…” (for you know the soul of the stranger) – gives me the key to the door of compassion. The verb “yada” (to know), signifies intimacy. When I encounter the stranger, I am commanded to know her soul, to step inside her skin, to see that his pain, his joy, is not different than my own. This moment of knowing breaks the chain of oppression.
When I encounter the suffering of the stranger it can be an opportunity for me to approach and begin to heal the place inside myself that remembers suffering. From that place of newfound wholeness I can then work for justice and become a healer of the world’s pain. The secret ingredient is profound connection with the other. Gazing into the soul of the stranger, compassion is born. This compassion embraces your own suffering as well as the stranger’s. Remembering what it was like to be the stranger, the spiritual challenge is to let your heart open first in compassion for yourself, and then expand to encompass the reality of the stranger who stands before you.
1 Exodus 22:25-26
For Guidelines for Practice please click on link to website:
R. Simon said: When the Holy One of blessing, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “let him not be created.” Thus it is written, Love (Hesed) and Truth (Emet) fought together, Righteousness (Tzdek) and Peace (Shalom) combated each other. Love said, “Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love.” Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.” What did the Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground. The ministering angels before the Holy One of blessing said, “Master of all Worlds! Why do you shame Your chief angel, Truth? Let Truth arise from the earth!”
As presented by Reb Sholom Brodt
Reb Shlomo zt”l – teachings on TRUTH
I want to learn a little bit from the Holy Baal Shem Tov on truth. I just want to bless it to you.
The first thing is a person has to make up his mind, “I want to tell the truth, and I don’t ever want to lie.” And then G-d will help him, and whatever he does will be true. Because we always think “I’m just telling a lie, but my life is truth.” It’s not true. If I utter words of lies then I become a liar. My life becomes a lie, and even the truth I say is also a lie.
You know you don’t have to lie to lie. Sometimes you tell the truth and you’re also lying. So therefore the Baal Shem Tov says if mammash you are strong, you don’t ever want to lie. Then everything you do becomes real.
Then [he continues with] something very deep. Anything you do for the sake of G-d cannot be done with your lying. Because let’s say for instance, when I’m doing something for the sake of G-d, that means I’m giving G-d a gift. When you give somebody a gift then it has to … a little wrapping, right? The gift, [is] when you do something for G-d. The wrapping has to be in truth. [It] has to be in truth.
You know the Holy Baal Shem tov says, whenever [you] have a chance to do a little bit of lying, when [you] want to lie, the letters of “Emet” should stand in front of you. You know, just thinking of the letters ‘aleph’, mem’ tav’, will give you strength. So the Baal Shem Tov says all the time, let the word ’emes’ be in front of you. Mammash, walk around saying, “emet, emes, emes.” It will get to you. “Emes, emes, emes, emes.”
Let there be truth in the world. Let there be truth in our hearts. Let there be truth be truth in the world. It takes a lifetime to get to the truth. Emet, emes, emes, emes.
Then he says, a lot of people don’t lie in their words, but they’re lying in their thoughts and they’re lying deep down in their souls. So he says you should mammash be ready to die, G-d forbid, when you lie to yourself and your soul. It’s much easier not to lie to people – not to lie to yourself, is the hardest thing in the world.
It says there is nothing in the world that G-d says to keep away from. Just don’t do it … [for example] it’s forbidden to eat ham, but G-d doesn’t say [to] keep away from it. It’s [just] forbidden, right? [It says to] keep Shabbos. It doesn’t say to keep away from not keeping Shabbos. But [concerning] lying, G-d is begging me, “Please don’t lie.” On a simple level it means … if I had a friend who is lying, I’d say he’s lying and I’m not lying. [But] if you’re close to people who are lying … [you would beg them not to lie.]
Reb Zusha zt”l says something very deep. One word of lying makes you a stranger to G-d. It’s hard to talk to a stranger! With every lie you utter, you become a stranger to G-d – the most horrible thing. Can you imagine if the greatest thing in the world becomes a stranger to you?
The he says something very beautiful. This too I want to wish you, holy Chosson and Kallah. Imagine children when they’re born, who teaches children to lie? Their parents! The Baal Shem Tov was very strong [on this]. He said, “People, don’t teach your children to lie, because if you don’t teach your children how to lie, it would never occur to them to lie.” Children lying? How can anybody lie? … So he says, “Mammash, I’m begging you … and you have to tell your children not only not to lie, you have to tell them all the time that the holiest thing is the truth. Get it [through] to them. Then they’ll grow up and they’ll tell the truth.”
Then he says something very beautiful: If you’re honest, then you won’t be proud and you won’t be arrogant. Because the whole thing of arrogance comes from lying to your self, right? I wish you a lot of emet.
I want to wish you one more thing. There is an open truth and a hidden truth … this is the deepest holiest truth in the world … the most hidden thing in the world is G-d … the most hidden thing in the world is to love people … because it’s so true … anything that is so true, is hidden. It’s hidden [and] it’s very holy.
Translated and interpreted by Reb Sholom Brodt
Reb Nosson teaches that the main bridge for successfully traversing this world of lies is emmet, truth. Man has to pass through this world on a very narrow bridge and it is most important not to fear at all. It is with truth that we merit getting across the narrow bridge of this world. As the world says, that with truth you can get through the entire world. That is because truth is the essence of the world and everything in it stands on.
All confusions and obstacles that a person encounters in serving Hashem are primarily confusions of the mind, and the most important advice for getting through these to find clarity is emmet. Truth guides a person, as it says in scripture, “Send your light and your truth. They shall guide me.” And as it says, “I shall walk in your truth.” Truth is the bridge of holiness with which we can get through all the turbulent waters and be saved from them. This is the aspect of the splitting of the sea, where the children of Israel walked on dry land in the midst of the sea. This occurred then in the merit of Yaacov Avinu, is the embodiment of truth.
Because falsehood is complete darkness, it envelops us in so much darkness to the point that we mistakenly exchange truth for falsehood and falsehood for truth, good for evil and evil for good, light for darkness and darkness for light. This confusion between truth and falsehood manifested itself greatly in the struggle between Avraham Avinu and Nimrod, to the point that he had Avraham Avinu thrown into the fiery furnace. And then when Avraham Avinu came to Israel and there was a hunger in the land, the people blamed him for the hunger. Later on this argument between truth and falsehood was played out in the struggle between Yitzchak and Yishmael, and again in the struggle between Yaakov and Esau.
This confusion between truth and falsehood eventually pervaded the people of Israel as well, for that is the way it is in this world, which conducts itself in ways that are the opposite of truth. The rabbis who saw what it was like in heaven said, “I saw an upside down world.”
And all the more so now, falsehood has become even more powerful here the midst of our many sins as it says in scripture, “You threw truth down to the earth.” People have gathered into flocks, and each flock claims that the truth is with them. And furthermore, the “troublemaker” has empowered himself further and has confused the world even more than ever by bringing great conflicts and confusions into the world.
Even amongst the true tzaddikim, there is great argument, so much so that not a single one of them can find the truth. Therefore, we have to sincerely request and supplicate that Hashem should give us the merit to be close with the truly righteous tzaddikim, so that we should be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, for it has become very difficult to distinguish between them, for whenever any one of them reveals some truth, there is an opposing lie.
Even those who are far from the truth speak in the language of truth, making it impossible to clearly identify the truth. Every person at best manages to estimate what it is in his heart. And this can be done only if he is willing to make every necessary sacrifice to ensure that he does not mislead himself; he must be willing to look at the real truth without any other diversions at all. Then he will be able to distinguish at least to some degree the difference between clear truth and that which is not clear truth. (Taken from Likutei Halachot Hilchot Birchot Hashachar 3:10 and 11).
Sometimes it may occur that a person may fall, heaven forefend, as a result of something which is actually true. For he knows within his soul that it is true that he has done much damage and caused many blemishes, and that even now he is in this imperfect state. With this truth the “troublemaker” attempts to push him completely away from Hashem, (by making one say to himself, I’ve already messed up so much, how could I possibly ever get out of this mess). Many people are in the habit of saying such things to themselves, and many have completely left their worlds because of this truth.
However, the truly righteous tzaddikim have already revealed to us that the truth of truth is not like that. Rather, each person must strengthen himself in his connection with Hashem, blessed be he, at all times, and fulfill or live with King David’s teaching, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the lowest depths, behold, you are there.” (Psalm 139, verse 8). For even if one finds himself in the lowest of hells, heaven forefend, he must know the truth of truth; he must believe that he is still close to Hashem, and there is no reason for despair. He must know that it is possible to do tshuvah even from that lowly place, and to truly come close to Hashem.
Surely we have to guard ourselves from committing transgressions, and even from the slightest of defects. Nevertheless, even if the person did falter and did transgress, even if he did so thousands and tens of thousands of times, heaven forefend, nevertheless, at every moment, G-d’s kindness is unending, and it is possible to bring one’s self close to Hashem in all conditions and from all places. For G-d’s greatness cannot be fully understood. Through tshuvah and crying out to G-d and much prayer and supplication, everything can be transformed to the good. As it says in the Talmud, transgressions are transformed into merits. And that is the essence of the truth of truth. (Taken from Likutei Halachot Hilchot Shabbat 7:58, 63, 64).
Reb Sholom Brodt
23:8 “You shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the clear sighted, and corrupt words that are right.”
Oh how hard it is to find the Truth in this ‘world of lies’ that we live in. Even with our own selves it is very difficult to be completely honest. We not only accept bribes from others, we even bribe ourselves. Consequently we seldom fully achieve our purpose and mission in life. At Mt. Sinai we stood ‘as one person with one heart’ in complete harmony and union with Hashem. There was Truth and there was Peace.
Parshat Mishpatim is about how to seek Truth and live it in this world of lies.
From Rav Kook
Mishpatim: Permission for Doctors to Heal
Amongst the various laws in the parashah of Mishpatim – nearly all of which are of a societal or interpersonal nature – the Torah sets down the laws of compensation for physical damages. When one person injures another, he must compensate the other party with five payments. He must pay for (1) any permanent loss of income due to the injury, (2) embarrassment, (3) pain incurred, (4) loss of income while the victim was recovering, and (5) medical expenses.
This last payment, that he “provide for his complete healing” (Exod. 21:19), i.e., that he cover any medical fees incurred, is of particular interest. The word “to heal” appears 67 times in the Torah, almost always referring to God as the Healer. Only here, as an aside to the topic of damages, does the Torah indicate that we are expected to take active measures to heal ourselves, and not just leave the healing process to nature.
This detail did not escape the keen eyes of the Sages. “From here we see that the Torah gave permission to the doctor to heal” (Berachot 60a).
Yet we need to understand: why should the Torah need to explicitly grant such permission to doctors? If anything, we should expect all medical activity to be highly commended, as doctors ease pain and save lives.
Our Limited Medical Knowledge
The human being is an organic entity. The myriad functions of body and soul are intertwined and interdependent. Which person can claim that he thoroughly understands all of these functions, how they interrelate, and how they interact with the outside world? There is a danger that when we treat a medical problem in one part of the body, we may cause harm to another part. Sometimes the side effects of a particular medical treatment are relatively mild and acceptable. And sometimes the results of treatment may be catastrophic, causing problems far worse than the initial issue.1
One could thus conclude that there may be all sorts of hidden side effects, unknown to the doctor, which are far worse than the ailment we are seeking to cure. Therefore, it would be best to let the body heal on its own, relying on its natural powers of recuperation.
Relying on Available Knowledge
The Torah, however, rejects this view. Such an approach could easily be expanded to include all aspects of life. Any effort on our part to improve our lives, to use science and technology to advance the world, could be rebuffed on the grounds that we lack knowledge of all consequences of the change.
The Sages taught: “The judge can only base his decision on what he is able to see” (Baba Batra 131a). If the judge or doctor or engineer is a competent professional, we rely on his expertise and grasp of all available knowledge to reach the best decision possible. We do not allow concern for unknown factors hinder our efforts to better our lives.
“The progress of human knowledge, and all of the results of human inventions – is all the work of God. These advances make their appearance in the world according to mankind’s needs, in their time and generation.”
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 390)
1 The tragic example of birth defects as a result of treating morning sickness in pregnancy with thalidomide comes to mind.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Choosing liberation (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote for this week’s portion back in 2006, originally published at now-defunct blog Radical Torah. Enjoy!
As Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses notes, the shift from last week’s Torah portion to this week’s can be jarring. “Going from Yitro to Mishpatim we come down the mountain with a real thud,” she writes. “Gone are the salacious family stories of Genesis and the dramatic national birth story of Exodus. Starting with this week’s parsha, sitting in synagogue week after week, one can hear yawns all around. What happened to the joy of sheer story?”
And, what’s more, the portion begins with a mishpat — a mitzvah of justice, a commandment concerning itself with righteousness — detailing the obligations of slave ownership. Slave ownership? We’ve just read and relived the story of the Israelites’ transformation from slaves into free and covenanted people, and now we’re kicking off a long set of legal ins and outs with a rule about owning Israelite slaves?
Well, technically it’s a rule about freeing Israelite slaves, though there’s an exception which proves it:
But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life.
Rabbi Cohler-Esses is not alone in observing that this first mishpat places the Israelites — and, by extension, us — in a new role. Starting now, the Israelites are responsible for transforming their lives and the lives of those under their care, just as their lives have been transformed. But what to do when someone shies away from transformation?
Pierce his ear, Torah tells us; having rejected freedom, he is a slave for life. The ear-piercing is a sign of ownership. In one sense, the doorpost serves as the solid backdrop against which the actual piercing takes place. But the doorway has metaphorical meaning, as well. He who chooses slavery stands not only in a physical doorway, but in a figurative doorway between one state and another. When his ear is pierced against the doorpost, the blood deposited there — however scant it might be — evokes the bloodied lintels of the Israelites in Egypt, on the cusp of their own transformation from slaves into people who are free. In this case, though, the transformation is stalled, the new life stillborn.
How does this resonate for us today, in a culture where slavery is no longer practiced and we are neither slave-holders nor slaves? As many of our Passover haggadot remind us, slavery comes in many forms. It is possible to become enslaved to our jobs, to the impossible standards by which we judge ourselves, to other people’s images of who we should be. Slavery’s limitation of circumstance can become familiar, and therefore comfortable. As one teaching about charoset has it, our edible representation of mortar is good to the palate because slavery’s familiarity can be sweet.
This week’s portion reminds us to take care lest we become accustomed to the familiarity of our constricted circumstances, and choose them over frightening — but ultimately valuable — freedom. She who chooses servitude diminishes her possibilities. In so doing, she sacrifices not only the droplet of blood the ear-piercing draws forth, but also the ability to see possibility. Choosing servitude is a turning-away, and Torah tells us it changes one in ways that are irrevocable.
Each of us who chooses freedom over servitude — to expectations, to work, to the ego — mimics the communal choice the ancient Israelites made when they followed Moses out of Mitzrayim, that Narrow Place. It is a basic human choice, but it is not an easy one. When we are free, there is always the risk that we will fall short. There is always the risk that we will become lost in the wilderness of proliferating choices, and that when we find our way to a place we recognize we will be met with the request that we continue to grow in maturity and responsibility. There is always the risk of failure.
But to do otherwise is unthinkable. It is to turn our backs on possibility and opportunity, to prefer stasis, and that is not the Jewish choice. As this week’s Torah portion reminds us, an Israelite who chooses lasting servitude is marked, and her development is frozen at the moment of that unchangeable marking. It is our obligation, as modern-day readers of Torah, to be both the slave-holder who declares freedom, and the slave who takes the leap of choosing it, again and again.
And what to make of the seven-year timeframe? Seven evokes Shabbat and sabbatical, of course, though I see another possible resonance here. Every seven years, I’m told, we replace our skin entirely: the cells of our largest organ, the one that serves as the boundary between inside and outside, create themselves anew. As we regenerate our physical boundary, it is incumbent upon us to regenerate our emotional and spiritual boundaries, too — and to do so in a way that allows us to continually choose liberation for ourselves and those around us.
God, infinite and ever-changing, help us be brave enough to change along with You, in accordance with Your will — and to find that change not threatening, but enriching, to our sense of who we are and who we aim to become.
Parshat Mishpatim e Nourishment”
by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Torah Reading for Week of February 15-February 21, 2009
“Divin, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel
AJR, CA Professor of Talmud
In Parshat Mishpatim, we read that “Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu and 70 Israelite elders went up the mountain…they had a vision of the Divine, and they ate and drank.” If you saw G-d, would your first impulse be to eat and drink? Why would these distinguished leaders react to a spiritual vision in such a seemingly mundane manner?
The Zohar teaches that Moses, together with his entourage, decided to climb Mount Sinai because they were, in fact, hungry and thirsty. They set out on this journey out of a need for sustenance, and they were all aware that the type of nourishment they were seeking resided at the top of Mount Sinai. Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and the 70 Israelite elders were hungry for spiritual enlightenment, and they were thirsty for divine radiance. They were hungry and thirsty for G-d, and they set out to climb Mount Sinai in order to satiate their hunger and quench their thirst for the divine.
Upon reaching the summit of the mountain, they encountered a vision of the divine, described by the Torah as “the whiteness of sapphire, with the essence of a clear blue sky.” They saw the divine Throne of Glory (which according to Ezekiel is made of Sapphire) floating through the clear blue sky, the essence of spiritual purity. As they stood there and witnessed this divine radiance, what was their reaction? “They ate and drank” – they tasted the spirit of G-d, and drank from G-d’s divine fountain. As the Zohar teaches, “The vision of the divine nourished them, they were fed the light of G-d.”
Every single one of us can partake of the same divine meal that nourished Moses and the elders. We all have the potential to “climb Mount Sinai and have a vision of the divine” in our own lives. Follow the advice of Rabbi Azriel of Gerona (13th Century Kabbalist), and perhaps you, too, can find yourself on the top of Mount Sinai seeing G-d: “Whatever positive energy one implants firmly in the mind becomes the essential thing. So if you pray or offer a blessing to G-d, imagine that you are light. All around you, in every corner and on every side, is light. Between them, up above, the light of the Divine Presence. Surrounding that, the light of life. Above it all, a crown of light – crowning the aspirations of thought, illuminating the paths of imagination, spreading the radiance of the vision. This light is unfathomable and endless.”
If we all seek to bring this light into our lives, we can climb Mount Sinai every day.
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