Archive for the '2.06 Mishpatim' Category

Strangers Look Out for Strangers: Mishpatim and Trans Rights

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to empathize and care for other strangers.

I was thinking about this on Wednesday night when reading about the Trump administration’s withdrew of Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity. In a recent study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics. The study suggested an association between the drop in teen suicide attempts and the implementation of same-sex marriage policies. Suicide is the ultimate expression of the feeling of being a stranger. While the study did not prove the drop in teen suicide attempts was caused by the implementation of same-sex marriage policies, it would seem that even the possibility that more open policies would drive down the number of people committing suicide would create a moral mandate to extend these policies.

As descendant of strangers I feel that it is our mandate to look out for people who are foreigners, be they not born to this country or to their birth sex.  Social conservatives love to talk about the primacy of life, it is strange in that they clearly do not mean it.

Arbitrary Rules : A Parenting Perspective

With the advent of Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we are presented a long list of rules. Last week’s story of the revelation of the 10 Commandments at Sinai seems like and interesting mix of nomos and  narrative, but this week there is all law and almost no lore. What is the significance of this shift in the text?

There is no doubt to me that there is a value of law in society and it would make sense for the Torah to communicate laws. Laws helps us enforce certain behavior,  but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it,  we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. So where are the stories in our Torah portion?

The one section of narrative in this Torah portion is another take on the story of revelation. There we read:

And Moshe went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day God called to Moshe out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moshe entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moshe was in the mount forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:15-18)

The source of these laws is a devouring fire. As a parent I can relate to this burning desire sometimes to have my children follow rules blindly, but in the long run I realize that things would work out better if I took the time to explain the meaning of the things I want my children to do.  Just as I am not surprised if not actually happy when my children push back on why perceive to be arbitrary rules and directives, I am no surprised that the sin of the Golden Calf will come before the end of these forty days and nights.

 

 

 

Hands Up Don’t Shoot

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to relate to other strangers. In light of this I wanted to share these images:

Image result for ferguson hands up boy

We cannot just through our hands up and say that the racial issues in this country are not our problems. We too need to put our hands up and work with those who are estranged by the systems power. We need to do our part to enact a rule of law that treats everyone equally.

In the words of Common in the song Glory from Selma:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough

That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up

We are either part of the solution or we are part of the problem.

The Laws of the Stranger

My friend Rav Aryeh Bernstein recently put together a great event called SermonSlam in Jerusalem. I have been watching the videos online. The event was an amazing mash-up of a groovy spoken word poetry slam and a gevalt Tische. One video that really stood out to me was by the brilliant comedian  Yisrael Campbell. You got to watch it:

He pointed out that most people we know in the Jewish community are complete aliens to the notion of being alienated. While our tradition talks about slavery, today we have no way of relating to that feeling of being a stranger. For a people that always talk about slavery we really do a horrible job in acting on behalf of the stanger.

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about one of the 36 references to our mandate look out for the needs of the alien. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ( Exodus 23:9)

Empathy is the root of any ethical system. But if we lost a memory of being slaves how can we fulfill these commandments? Campbell points out that Jewish law did a great job creating law regarding the prohibition of eating milk and meat. Jewish law represents a code of conduct that helps sculpt an ethical life. What Campbell says in jest actually seems like an important plan of action. Why not spell out a code for how we treat the stranger?

Campbell says it so well, “I don’t know what Egypt is, but I know narrowness is and I know what slavery is.” Spelling out a code for how we treat the stranger would help open us up to live the right life.  I have some ideas about how we might work on this project, who wants to help?

Microloans

Note: I am sure that I am missing some basics in economics. I am a Rabbi and not an economist.       Please feel free to comment.

The Great Recession (also referred to as the global recession of 2009) is a marked global economic decline that began in December 2007 and took a particularly sharp downward turn in September 2008. The active phase of the crisis, which manifested as the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble, which peaked in 2006,caused the values of securities tied to U.S. real estate pricing to plummet, damaging financial institutions globally. Some economists have claimed that the origin of the financial crisis of 2007–2010 can be traced back to an extremely indebted US economy. High private debt levels also impact growth by making recessions deeper and the following recovery weaker. We are still working our way out of this situation.

It was hard not thinking about all of this when reading about the biblical institution of loans in Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

24 If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor with you, you shall not be to him as a creditor; neither shall you lay upon him interest. 25 If you at all take your neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him by that the sun goes down; 26 for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he cries to Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious. ( Exodus 22:24-26)

Who can we charge interest? Who can we not charge interest? Being part of Klal Yisrael  is not just the idea of Jewish people, but also a realization of the corporation of Israel. But seeing usury only in terms of belonging to a specific group is missing some of the lessons the Torah has to teach us about the institution of loans.  It is interesting to note the size of standard loans. The pledge needed to secure a loan was only a shirt, but if it was excessive (as the shirt off their back) it was limited by the law . There is clearly a lesson in here of God’s compassion for the needy and maybe also for society at large.

Our Torah portion is resonant with today’s microfinance world. These microloans are made to impoverished borrowers who typically lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history. It is designed not only to support entrepreneurship and alleviate poverty, but also in many cases to empower women and uplift entire communities by extension. In many communities worldwide, in developed and developing nations alike, women lack the highly stable employment histories that traditional lenders tend to require. This reality might result from factors such as leaving the paid workforce to care for children and elderly relatives. As of 2009 an estimated 74 million men and women held microloans that totaled US$38 billion. Grameen Bank reports that repayment success rates are between 95 and 98 percent.

At the core giving a loan is trusting another person to pay you back. Giving someone a hand to help him/herself is more important than just a hand out. But we need to be sure to take loans that we can pay back or we put our whole system in jeopardy. On an interpersonal and collective level giving small loans might not just be doing good, but also doing well.

– This was inspired by my old friend Saul Korin

Ultimate Freedom

In parshat Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read a whole litany of rules dealing with slavery. For a group of people who had just been liberated from bondage it is hard to imagine that there would be any sanction for this behavior. How could we ever put a price on another human being? And if we are looking to make Torah relevant today the idea of slavery seems even more absurd. In our age, a time in which we are hell-bent on the idea of personal autonomy and individuality, the idea of owning another person seems totally absurd.

In his Sh”ut Memaamikeem, Responsa of the Holocaust, Rabbi Efrayim Oshry deals with a very interesting question (III: 6). How can a Jew who is subjugated to forced labor in the ghetto say the morning blessing thanking God for not making him/her a slave? Rabbi Oshry responded that despite the fact that the person was actually enslaved physically, according to the Avudraham, the original idea behind the blessing was that we should thank God for not making us spiritual slaves to idolatry. The Torah’s ideal is to be free. Freedom in the Torah is not independence, rather it is recognition of ultimate dependence. Relying on anything other than God would be idolatrous. Rabbi Oshry encouraged the person to continue to say the blessing as testimony of real freedom. In saying the blessing, the slave became liberated.

In our lives it is hard to imagine that we are physically enslaved. But, with so many things making a claim on our time, it is hard to imagine that we are truly the masters of our own time. While we abhor slavery, it seems that we have actually put a price on our own persons.  What are we working for? Are we  selling ourselves short? So stay up late, make more time in your life,  and talk about these questions with people you respect. Who knows? You might even find these conversations redeeming.

Stranger in a Strange Land

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with thy vineyard, and with thy olive yard. (Exodus 23:9-11)

What is the connection between being nice to the stranger and keeping the laws of shmittah, letting the fields go fallow on the seventh year?

On the surface, it seems that every seven years we create a welfare state, which provides for the less fortunate. However, on a deeper level we see that the laws of shmittah maintain a feeling of never owning the land. Cycling through this seven-year process, helps us stay in touch with the experience of our own being strangers. Surely, it is wonderful to feel at home. But, in the words of Rabbi Levi Lauer, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.” The experience of alienation once every seven years is supposed to inculcate us with the need to look out for the dispossessed for the following six years. We can never let our experience of comfort overshadow our compassion for the stranger.

It has been 30- years since U2 released “Stranger in a Strange Land” on their album October. The song starts off:

Stranger, stranger in a strange land
He looked at me like I was the one who should run
We asked him to smile for a photograph
Waited a while to see if we could make him laugh

Often we see others as if they are strangers, when in reality it is us ourselves who are the strangers. It seems at its core we have been singing this song for centuries. 

– And I wish you were here


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,303 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: