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!
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