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!

Shabbat Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim: True Judgement

A Jewish congregation is formally known as a kehillah kedoshah, a “holy community.” Such a community lives up to its name when all of us within it find ourselves off balance.
That seems a strange statement at first glance. Yet it is true: as the Israelites begin to define their lives at the foot of Mt Sinai as a covenanted community, and as we continue that process in every place where Jews come together, the mystics teach that we are called upon to give way to Something that pulls at us, unbalancing us off our center, and toward each other.
It’s striking that while every creature and every thing seems to seek stasis and balance, we are taught that judgment is true only if the stasis we seek is constantly tested and retested. A well-known Talmudic image of justice, citing the Tanakh (Amos 7.8), is the plumb line: a weighted string that demonstrates a clear true line as long as it hangs freely. The line is knocked off its center, even as are we, by that which gets in the way – all the little details of life that make it so complicated.
We live in anxious times, and out of our own sense of embattled insecurity can be quick to accuse each other of causing pain. How can we hope to see clearly if the plumb line of our convictions is true? On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Shabbat of Judgements, this is an urgent question.
 A famous teaching offers these requirements for true judging and judgements:
1. A true decision stands on its own merits against the will of the disputants
2. Good judges cause the Torah to be beloved
3. Four things bring clemency from the Heavenly tribunal: tzedakah, prayer, change of conduct, and change of reputation
4. Stubborn refusal to repent causes disease
(Sefer haMiddot, “The Book of Ethics”, p. 47-54)
We can clearly see from these four aspects of true judgement that justice is not a matter of simple demonstrable right and wrong. All these things can push the plumb line off from clear truth: emotional attachment to one side manipulating a dispute; the effect of judges who are not able to thoughtfully balance context and history; bad behavior on anybody’s part; and the desire to avoid blame at all costs.
On this Shabbat Mishpatim, think about who you blame, and then look for the plumb line of your connection to the kehillah kedoshah, the sacred community, that helps hold us all up. Does it hang true, or are you off-balance, too much hunkered down in yourself and how you are right, pulling that line toward you and away from another? The Jewish plumb line can never hang true until each of us is equally off-balance, leaning as much toward each other as toward our own center. It’s not comfortable, but it is, in the end, the only safe place.
May we be Judged in merit always,
Shabbat shalom

Shabbat Mishpatim / Shabbat Shekalim: Community – The Difficulty Is In the Details

Every year we study once again the account of the moment when our people stood at the foot of Mt Sinai, witnessed a revelation, and became a community. Literally a “peak moment,” our commentators teach that this was the only time in all the history of our People of Israel when we were of one mind.

That’s a warning. This week’s reading, parashat Mishpatim, continues with that revelation, now with the details of the ancient code of law meant to guide us in ethical paths. It’s the proverbial “morning after” and upon looking at the fine print of the covenant we’ve just concluded, we’re feeling some ambivalence. We look at each other and sometimes wonder – are these the people with whom I’m meant to hold hands, that we might go out into the world together?

Perhaps that’s always true; perhaps the natural reaction to the step forward into commitment is to step back. It’s often true in relationships and in jobs. Having made common cause with another, we circle back to be sure of our own parameters. Torah comes to warn us to be careful: the community to which you’re committed does not exist unless you find your common cause with it. Jews sigh: amkha, we call ourselves, literally meaning “Your people” (that capital Y is deliberate). 

Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em may be true, but we often try to have it both ways. In the accounts, both Torah and the midrash which fills out the teachings regarding the time our people spent at Sinai, our ancestors splinter into groups, making choices: these are the people I include in my community, those I don’t. 

When the prophets condemn ancient Israelite society this is where they begin: the abandonment of widow and orphan. Sure, it goes on: our prophetic tradition also singles out corrupt business practices and fraudulent politics – but it begins with a denunciation of the way we turn away from each other, and the half-asleep way in which we do it.

According to Jewish tradition, we can learn Torah from nearly anything in the world, when we see how our learning casts illumination onto our sense of Jewish identity and meaning. With this in mind, I invite you to consider a modern sort of midrashic insight offered us by computer word processing. When we create a document, we can opt for “widow and orphan protection” to keep a single line of a paragraph from ending up alone on a page due to the effects of automatic formatting.

When we step back from the complete commitment to that community of which we are a part – that utter immersion we sometimes feel, in a moment of emotion or spiritual intensity – we are stepping back from people. We are creating widows and orphans. 

Jewish community is a funny thing; it’s neither your family, nor is it only your book group, or even your mah jongg group. It’s something not well defined by our liberal American individuality, for it is a place in which we are meant to care for each other regardless of whether we share in each other’s individual interests or tastes. We Jews who live in the United States, many of us have been conditioned out of the ability to find our place in this communal mode, and it’s difficult to learn. 

But in these days when we are feeling under siege, when we need safe spaces and feel keenly that we cannot carry our burdens alone, Jewish community is a lucky inheritance for us to have. It takes time, yes – and it redeems time:

You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed in its meaning and to be realized in it by you.  – Martin Buber (Meaning and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue, by Ronald C Arnett)

Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One