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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Shabbat Shoftim: No Justice, No Peace

This parashat hashavua offers us so much of the guidance we need for our community relationships – the parashah begins with three perfect verses that cover so much ground.

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

You must have judges and officers in all your gates which by the grace of G-d you have, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.

לֹא-תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט, לֹא תַכִּיר פָּנִים; וְלֹא-תִקַּח שֹׁחַד–כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים, וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם.

You shall not show favoritism; you shall not respect individuals; you shall not take a gift – for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and twists the words of the righteous.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף–לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ

Justice, justice you must follow, that you may live, and inherit the land which ‘ה your G-d gives you.  (Devarim 16.18-20)

Consider these few of the centuries of interpretations of these three verses, and in how many situations of your every day life they might guide your own words and acts:

1. “Judges” – in the plural. Do not dare to judge alone, for no one can judge alone but the One.  –  Pirke Avot 4:8 – Get a second opinion before you make a decision about someone’s character or behavior. Maybe you’re wrong.

2. “in all your gates” – The human body is a city with seven gates, that is, seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. We must learn to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what goes in and what comes out. – Sifte Kohen – The best advice I ever got was to “put a seven-second delay” on my mouth.

3.”Bribes blind the eyes of the wise” – As soon as [the judge] accepts a bribe from [a litigant], it is impossible for him not to be favorably disposed towards him. – Rashi – Bribes are not just money or other kinds of material gain. One can be bribed in a much more subtle way, without any malicious intent, as in this story from the Talmud:

Bribes twist the words of the righteous” – A person once brought Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha the “First Shearings” (one of the 24 gifts given to a kohen – Rabbi Ishmael was a kohen by lineage and could accept such gifts). Said Rabbi Ishmael to him: “Where are you from?” Said he: “From such-and-such a place.” Said Rabbi Ishmael: “And from there till here there was no kohen to whom you could give it?” Said he: “I have a matter of litigation, and I said to myself: as I’m coming here, I’ll give it to you.”

Rabbi Ishmael refused to accept it from him, and said to him: “I am disqualified to serve as a judge in your case.” Instead, he sat two Torah scholars to judge his case. While still going to and fro [and overhearing the litigation], Rabbi Ishmael said to himself: If he wanted, he could argue thus and thus [to better present his case]. Said he: “A curse upon the takers of bribes! I did not accept anything from him. And if I would have accepted it, it would have been something that is mine by rights. Nevertheless, I am inclined in his favor. How much more so one who accepts a bribe! – Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 105b

4. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – Why does the verse repeat itself? Is there a just justice and an unjust justice? Indeed there is. The Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice — both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just. – Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa

5. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” – By virtue of three things the world endures: law, truth and peace. – Pirke Avot 1:18 – Law, truth and peace; the three are one and the same: if the law is upheld, there is truth and there is peace. – Talmud Yerushalmi, Taanit 4:2

Our third verse concludes with the warning that only when justice is upheld with righteousness can we expect to “inherit the land”. That land is the place of your life and that of your family and community. The Torah is telling us that aren’t enough security systems and armies in the world to protect us from the consequences of our unethical choices. Unless we establish real justice, for all, in the land of the living, none of us will feel secure upon it.

What would our lives be like if we truly believed that the best insurance for a safe and happy life was bought by ethical insurance, and not just the homeowner’s or renter’s policy you wouldn’t dream of not having?