Posts Tagged 'Mishpatim'

Blood on Our Hands

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 Yosef and his brothers.

Originally, Yosef’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Yosef’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. Reuven 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 Yosef’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 times.  It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Yosef’s blood is on our hands for generations. We all accept the law for all of us and we all accept responsibility for looking out for people who are marginalized. Even today it is easy for us to hide behind a law, but without DACA innocent people’s lives will be destroyed. To fix this we might need to get my hands dirty.

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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.


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