Shabbat Tetzaveh: Values Are Not Expendable

Our parashat hashauva for this week is Tetzaveh, which can literally be translated “tell them what to do.” One reason for the Torah’s powerful presence in our people’s lives over several millennia is the sure sense, explicitly offered, that someone is telling us the right thing to do.
If only we had such a plumb line to grasp to carry us through the chaos of our days. The President of the U.S. uses his power to sow disorder and suffering; our Jewish community finds ourselves targeted and afraid for our safety; and this week here in Portland our own police force has been found to be cooperating with violent white supremacist thugs who have targeted our city for their hate and violence.
Add to this the sufferings of normal daily life – some in our own congregational community are housing insecure, others of us are ill. Some face death. Some are struggling with other kinds of personal challenges to their happiness.
This week the Portland City Council voted to end our Portland police’s cooperation with the FBI (you can learn more from OPB’s report here). After the vote, Mayor Wheeler was reported by OPB as saying: “while values are extremely important, values alone cannot protect the safety of the community.”
With respect to the difficulty of his job and what he may have meant (since it is a Jewish value to give the benefit of the doubt), I appeared at that City Council meeting to speak of those values that I believe must define our city as a community: mutual respect, personal safety, and insistence on transparency in the service of truth.
In so many places in our lives, we are all tempted to compromise on our values in the service of being safe. The value of due process even for the evil man in the White House; the value of living our lives in the dignity of freedom despite our fear; and the value of upholding a community ethic of social justice as an end, not a luxury. The Mayor has it backward, it seems to me: unless there is a value we uphold as essential to the nature of our safety, our safety itself will be compromised. We can see this in the decision some join to militarize the security of our own Jewish institutions in the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre – זכרונם לברכה may their memory be a blessing. And we can see it in the support some gave to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, to the extent of excusing abuses suffered by minority communities – since once we are afraid, we have a hard time finding the room in our hearts to care about others who are also afraid, and who are the first target.
Unless we defend our values first and last, what kind of society are we creating? Not a just one, probably; not one in which, in the end, when they come for you, there will be anyone left to speak up. A society that operates without absolute values is an absolute abhorrence to our prophets, and they rightly see its destruction as brought about by internal rot (children are still in cages today) more than the outside forces that were so feared.
The first line of our parashah, the one that gives us its name, is this:
וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

From this we can derive what is perhaps the most important value supporting us this week, and all weeks: shed a light on it. Bring the fuel that keeps the light burning bright. Truth and goodness flourish in light; only evil cannot stand it. For this we owe a great debt of gratitude to all the journalists investigating and digging and reporting in this time of rising hostility to that targeted community.
Only values that transcend moments of fear, of chaos, and of violence can protect our community, at the end of the day. May we continue to support each other in learning them, sharing them, and upholding them: hazak hazak vnithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.
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Shabbat Mishpatim: Law and Order

The Talmud records that other peoples used to make fun of the Jews, as it was well known in the ancient world already that we had entered into a covenant with HaShem, with all its opportunities and responsibilities, without asking to see the fine print.

That was last week; this week, we read many of the details that turn the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words, into a guide to live by. In parashat Mishpatim, in this third year of the Triennial Cycle for Torah study, we begin with four deeply relevant verses (Exodus 23.6-9).

לֹ֥א תַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט אֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּרִיבֽוֹ׃
You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.
The most striking aspect of this verse is the Hebrew word which translates “your needy.” Those who are vulnerable, impoverished and without resources are not someone else’s problem. They are ours. It is our Jewish obligation to see that their rights are respected equally with those who have protection and resources. This applies to the right to privacy, to due process, to safety…in short: to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is up to us to ensure all these rights for others in their disputes, not in serenity but in times of confrontation. They are ours.
מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג כִּ֥י לֹא־אַצְדִּ֖יק רָשָֽׁע׃
Keep far from a false charge; do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right, for I will not acquit the wrongdoer.
There is such a thing as a lie, and there are lies that kill innocents. Lies about immigrants who are lawfully seeking asylum have caused deaths. The evil that is pouring through the systems of our nation increases at our collective peril. Those children in cages, those bereft mothers and fathers, they are ours.
וְשֹׁ֖חַד לֹ֣א תִקָּ֑ח כִּ֤י הַשֹּׁ֙חַד֙ יְעַוֵּ֣ר פִּקְחִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽים׃
Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.
Bribery is a slippery thing, not usually so clear as a payoff envelope in hand. A bribe, for the Rabbis of the Talmud, is anything that “blinds the clear-sighted” and causes a bias in judgement. The victim, once again, is the innocent person telling the truth. Those innocents are ours even though they may seem alien.
וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

Judaism is sometimes characterized disparagingly as a religion of laws. This is a misunderstanding of a much more sophisticated system, that understands a difference between mishpat, the “law” of our parashah’s title, and tzedek, “innocence” or “righteousness.” In this way, Jewish law and American law are similar.

Yet the laws of the Torah are not the same as the law we are familiar with in the U.S. because Torah law is best understood as “the presence of G*d,” which brought about the creation of our world through shaping order out of chaos. For Jewish tradition, the presence of G*d is manifest only in mishpat tzedek, as Isaiah put it: “righteous judgement.” That is to say, “I was just following orders” is never an acceptable defense for wrongdoing; when the law is unethical, one must not follow it.
May we never be faced with more extreme examples of this idea than we currently experience! and may we come to know our power and our strength, together, to recognized oppression in its many guises, and to resist them all, since we know the feelings of the stranger, since we were strangers, and that is enough to know.
Shabbat shalom!