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 VaEra: To Appear, Perchance to be Seen

Our parashat hashavua (the week’s Torah text) describes the ultimate I-Thou moment, between Moshe Rabbenu (the way Moses is known in our tradition, as “Moshe our Rabbi”) and HaShem (the way G*d is known in our tradition. Out of respect, the word “adonai” is avoided, in speech and in print, outside of prayer).

‘וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י ה
G*d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am HaShem.
וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י ה’ לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ‘ה. (Exodus 6.3)
This passage, which gives our parashah its name, Va”Era (“I appeared”), drives the commentators crazy. After all, we can easily demonstrate that the Tetragrammaton (the polite Greek way to say “four letter word,” in this case referring to the personal Name by which Jews refer to our G*d) does appear in the texts describing the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So what can this possibly mean? Does the book of Exodus not even know the book of Genesis? Who edited this collection of sacred texts anyway?
The brilliant medieval commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, affectionately known by all Torah studying Jews today by his acronym Rashi, has a wonderful, mind-opening solution to the question:
It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name HaShem] I did not make known to them, but לא נודעתי [by My name, HaShem], was I not known [unto them] — i. e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called ה׳, which denotes that I am certain to substantiate My promise, for, indeed, I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. (Sefaria.org)
Rashi invites us to take a very close look at the grammar of the words here. It is not written “I did not announce My Name to them” but “My Name was not known to them.” How incredibly prosaic, how ironic, how every-day-inevitable this is! To “appear,” it seems, is not necessarily to “be seen,” much less to be understood.
We can all relate to the possible interpretations of the difference between these two phrases, which essentially can be expressed as the difference between “I said” and “you heard.”
It might mean that I keep telling you something but it does not sink in;
or perhaps that I said this but you heard that;
or that, as Rashi says, what you heard was a word that remains unfulfilled in your world.
Much of our Jewish ethical tradition is based upon the kind of listening that the philosopher Martin Buber described in his work I and Thou (his philosophy is full of his Jewish experience and wisdom). After all, we are a people which historically declares shema – “listen!” as our most central saying. Buber teaches that by closely listening to another, we come to really see who that person is, and not only in relationship to us.
This is a deliberate ethic of behavior which is easily overlooked in our daily running about. So much doesn’t sink in, sometimes because we’ve been so bombarded by harshness that we have developed our defenses against really listening. But Rashi’s insight, in the final analysis, indicates this: if we cannot really hear, then much will remain unfulfilled for us. We will hear what we perceive to be promises, but they will go unrealized. We will hear but misunderstand. It won’t sink in. Yet Jewish ethics insists that a word, once spoken, is sacred and must be fulfilled.
Va’Era literally means “I was seen.” Each of us needs to be seen – something we do best when we listen to each other carefully, compassionately, and  without thinking ahead to what we ourselves will say next. On this Shabbat, may you open up to your own deep and generous capacity for listening, and in so doing find the reassurance you need that you, also, will be heard, and seen.

Shabbat Shuvah: Remember Who You Are

Every year we observe Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is not the same parashah every year, though; this year, our Torah text is parashat VaYelekh, “he went.” It refers to Moshe, called in our tradition Moshe Rabbenu, “our Rabbi” – our teacher, our guide, our spiritual support.
וַיֵּלֶךְ, מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.

Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel;

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם–לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא; ה’ אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.

he said unto them: ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I no longer can go out and come in; and HaShem has told me that I am not going with you across the Jordan river.

ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

HaShem your G*d will go with you (Deuteronomy 31.1-2)

Moshe, our leader, spends most of the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) speaking final words to us. Our commentaries, ancient and modern, see something implied by the double verb: went and spoke. While in the southern dialect of American English in which I was raised this is merely a helper verb, our ancestors were looking at the Hebrew text. Reading carefully, they asked: what might vayelekh, “he went” mean?
After Moshe finished establishing the covenant with the Israelites [who were about to cross the Jordan] everyone went home. After that, Moshe wanted to take his leave of them for he knew he was to die. In his great love for them, in order to do them honor, he went from tent to tent, from tribe to tribe of the people of Israel, to let them know that he was to die, and to part from them.  This is why it is written “he went and spoke these things to all Israel.”
                                         – Isaac Abarbanel, Torah Commentary, Deuteronomy 31.1
One commentator asked, why didn’t he just call an assembly? Because as old and as honored as he was, Moshe was still humble, and instead of calling the Israelites to attend to him, he went to each of their homes to say a personal goodbye. This great leader didn’t forget his human needs, nor anyone else’s.
Shabbat Shuvah invites us to remember who we are, and what we need – and that everyone else is only human, and has needs too. The Days of Awe encourage us to get lost in ourselves as we try to see who we have become and consider whether that’s who we want to be, and we can forget that none of us exists separate from others. We are all connected with so many invisible lines – of love, of expectation, of anger, of dependence, of all the other ways we influence each other in a community. What may be obvious to you may not be to me, and of course, then there’s assumptions, grudges, and all the other baggage we carry, most of it unnecessary, all of it awkward and difficult.
Learning from Moshe Rabbenu, may we never be too proud or too awkward to seek each other out, rather than getting wrapped up in ourselves and our own worries, watching them grow all out of proportion while we wait for others to come to us. How will I know that you need me to come to you, how will you know when to come to me? and yet my well being depends upon yours, and yours upon mine.
גמר חתימה טובה
May you be sealed for a good year

Shabbat Matot-Masey: We’re In This Together

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
On this Shabbat we read a double parashah, both Matot and Masey, and at the end of it we finish the Book BaMidbar, the account of much wandering in geography and in relationships.
And in this specific Torah narrative, part of the second year of the Triennial Cycle of reading, we begin with the story of two brothers who decide that they will better off if they separate from the larger family.
The tribes of Reuven and of Gad were herders, and they saw that the land on the east side of the Jordan river was good grazing land. So they said to Moshe, “this land through which we are traveling is good land for grazing. Rather than cross the Jordan river, we prefer to stay on this side and settle here.”  –BaMidbar 32.1-5, excerpted.
It seems a reasonable statement of intent, not unlike the act of the one who gets to camp first and chooses the best spot available for her tent, or the volunteer who joins the moving crew on behalf of a helpless older person but leaves when it suits him. We’re all part of the group, until the individual in each of us emerges to claim our individual status. And it’s all innocent enough, until the desire to take care of oneself becomes après moi le deluge, as King Louis XIV was supposed to have said: after I get mine, who cares what happens?
In times like ours, fear of personal danger or loss may cause us to feel something similar, to hesitate before joining a group to protest, or putting oneself at the front line of a cause. It’s a natural enough human desire, to stay safe and to keep those one loves safe with one – to circle the wagons against the common threat, but to look for the best and safest place among those wagons for oneself.
And so Moshe confronted the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad, saying “will you abandon your family now, when you are needed to help protect and defend the group? Will you betray the people of which you are a part because you have found a separate place to which to escape?” – BaMidbar 32.6, more or less.
Moshe’s point echoes that of Mordecai, the Jew in Persia who confronted the Queen his niece at a similar moment:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. One the contrary, if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your family’s house wil perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position just for this purpose?” – Megillat Esther 4.13-14.
None of us can truly separate ourselves from what is happening all around us. Those people who are homeless are no different from us, and thus all our homes are less secure. Those children who are separated from their parents are our children, and the world of our children is less safe. Those immigrants, people of color, Muslims, trans people, and all other targeted human beings are us, and we are all in this together.
If we have position, privilege, and resources, now is not the time to hoard them, but to hear Mordecai’s question: what have you been given these blessings for? If we would leave the group because there may be a more comfortable reality that presents itself to us, would considering Moshe’s demand change our thoughts? Would you leave your people – your fellow Jews, your companions in Portland citizenry, those who are not your social class but who share your life with you every day?
During the Three Weeks period we are encouraged to reflect upon not our personal faults, as we do on Yom Kippur, but upon our communal failings. What part did each individual play in the fall of the Jerusalem Temple on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av, 2000 years ago? What part does each of us play in the destruction we fear in our own lives?
Neither personal, nor local, nor national borders will protect us from the acts we allow, enable, or fail to stop. This is one of the first lessons of Jewish ethics: that which you do to another affects you as well. But let this also be a reason for hope: when each of us commits to each other, none of us need ever be alone.

Shabbat Balak: Do You Know Where You Stand? Do You Know Why?

Thousands of years ago, a prophet appearing in our parashat hashavua, Bil’am ben Be’or, stood on a high place overlooking the tents of the people of Israel. He had been tasked with cursing the people, at the order of King Balak, who had hired him. Balak feared the presence of these immigrants at his border and it was Bil’am’s job to drive them away.
I write you this erev Shabbat email from the front line of @OccupyICEPDX, literally from the line of chairs set in front of the yellow police tape separating pro-immigrant, anti-ICE protesters from DHS police.
People on our side of the line are sitting in camp chairs, standing holding signs, reading, handing each other water. The poiice must stand next to the cars blocking the road, in full uniform, taking turns standing in the sun. This is now the second day of this confrontation. While the protesters and their tents were careful never to block the road or any access, even to the bike route, the Federal DHS has blocked the street with cars marked Federatl Protective Service Police. The word is that OHSU lawyers are working to force DHS to allow traffic through. For the meantime, the protesters are aware that those who need to commute to the south waterfront are losing patience with the situation, and they can’t help but blame all sides – as if all sides were equally at fault!
Why are the people depicted in this photo there? What inner sense of certainty does a person need to have in order to live in a protest encampment for over a week now? What kind of ethical clarity moves those of us who seek to support them? For that matter, what is the person in the uniform, wearing riot gear, armed with a gun, need to know with all his or her heart to be true?
Well, we might say, they are Americans – by which we mean citizens of the United States; there are many other Americans in South and North America. Many of us who oppose the acts of ICE would say that we seek to uphold the true values of the U.S., as enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toseed, to me. I lift my light beside the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a large Sefardi Jewish family and well-educated from an early age; one of the early influences upon her life and beliefs was that of the Civil War. Although she wrote much poetry and was a social activist, it took the immigration of Jews from Russia, her people, to inspire her to her greatest work, and lead her to create the poem that sums up the special nature of the United States as a haven for immigrants.  (Read more about her here.)
Although she was very much a patriot and very much a citizen of the United States, it was only when Emma Lazarus deepened her sense of identity as a Jew and a member of her people that she was able to do her greatest work.
We find ourselves in a curiously similar state today. Many of us “just feel that we have to do something” as people who are citizens of the U.S. Like Emma Lazarus, we are lucky enough to also be Jews, and to have a strong and ancient tradition in which to ground ourselves. It is in this older, multi-valent tradition that we will find the certainly and ethical clarity that will root us when the controversy over how to be an “American” is violent and angry.
Jews can quote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with the best of them; thank G*d, we also have justice, justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16.18) and you shall not oppress the stranger (Ex.23.9). With the Jewish value on one hand and the U.S. ethic on the other, we can know more clearly where we stand, and where we should.
Some will march tomorrow morning, on Shabbat; others will study Torah, or daven. May we all know where we stand and why as clearly as possible, lest our attempt to stand for something be as misunderstood as poor Bil’am, who wasn’t even there because he believed in what he was doing, only because someone else invited him.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Lift It Up

Last week the parashah began with the command to lift up every face; this week, the word beha’alot’kha, “in your lifting up” refers to raising up the lights of the menorah, the seven-branched lamp designed by G*d, according to Jewish tradition, to illuminate the holy place.
To lift up the face is to see the eyes, and to take account of each human soul. To lift up light is, literally, to raise a light and to cause it to shine far and wide. The two parshiot together summon us to an act both lovely and heroic: to look each other in the eye, and to lift up the light we find in each eye so that our combined light can illuminate the darkness. What more relevant message could the Torah bring to us in our time…
Nishmat adam ner HaShem – “the human soul is G*d’s light,” says the Psalmist. Each of us has a soul like a firefly, briefly, blinkingly, lighting up our surroundings. Seven of us – the count in a menorah – shed a bit more light. How many menorot might it take to light up the despair some of us might feel on any given day, these days? Jewish tradition says that the critical mass is a minyan of ten. We know there is strength and support in numbers (and indeed, we are in the Book of Numbers).
The wisdom of our ancestors offers us two linked lessons on this Shabbat, derived from the juxtaposition of last week’s and this week’s parashiot. First: every pair of human eyes bears the light of a human soul. To forget this, and to demonize any human being, is to lose hold of the spiritual path that we follow and that supports us. Second: each one of us who so chooses can light up the world, just a little bit, by standing up in a place of darkness to share our light.
That might mean intervening in lashon hara’, when you hear someone speaking in a way that dehumanizes any other person; it might mean a donation in support of causes that shed light; and it might mean joining me, if you are in Portland, this Sunday June 3 downtown (do you remember how we gathered, so many of us, last year on Sunday June 4?) to declare that we will not cede our public spaces to those who preach hate and exclusion.
The great human being and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr marching in Selma. Afterward he said that he felt that his legs were doing the praying at that time. This Shabbat, we will pray to remind ourselves of the values we seek to raise up by the way we live. On Sunday, pray with your legs if you can, and join me in raising up the light of those values in the public spaces of our city, that so badly need the light of love that values every human soul.