Dirty Responsibility

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays. At the end of this long list of things to do and not do, we read, “He (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said, we will do and we will understand!’ Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people…” (Exodus 24:7-8). I find this image to be striking. On one level, I am taken in by the national devotion to this newly minted law. The image all of them taking upon themselves this body of law is just awe-inspiring. I have to admit that my memory of this moment seems to be a bit cleaner then the Torah records. What is the story with all of this blood?

An answer that I wanted to share this week is connected to the beginning of the portion. The first commandment in the litany is, “If you buy a Jewish bondsman…” (Exodus 21:2). How could it be that they were just released from the bonds of slavery and they are now given a law about subjugating our brethren to slavery? I think the image of their receiving the Torah covered in blood and the regression of former slaves now taking slaves comes into focus through the lens of the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Originally, Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”(Genesis 37:31) The brothers did not want to kill him and have his blood on their hands. Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” (Genesis 37: 22).

In the case of Joseph’s brothers, we all can understand their jealousy. In our portion, we understand the slaves’ desires to be masters. In our lives, we understand that there is an underclass. But, we cannot confuse this understanding for an excuse. We know that we need laws for when we do not act well. The law might not be the ideal; it might just try to curb of our base desires. This is not enough; we need to strive for more. We are all mutually responsible for each other however; this social contract can get a bit messy at moments.  It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Joseph’s blood is on our hands. We all accept the law for all of us and we all accept responsibility for that marginalized person. If it is to be, it starts with me. And yes I might need to get my hands dirty.

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