D'var Torah Mishpatim
February 13th, 2021
I take up this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, The Book of the Covenant. Covenants create relationships, and obligations. In Mishpatim, God sets forth the rules or moral laws that will govern the relationship between God and the Israelites.
As distinguished from other societies at the time, the laws of Torah are based on divine principles embedded in the world. The Torah’s overall emphasis is on three interrelated principles; human equality, freedom, and dignity. The dignity of a human being is central. These laws or principles are intended to create not only a just society, but a Holy one.
Why is it important that these are God given laws? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in You Shall Be Holy; A Code of Jewish Ethics (vol.1) states: “Indeed, without God, by what authority can one argue certain activities should be permitted and others forbidden? Ivan Karamazov says ‘If there is no God, all is permitted’”. Without divine authority, we get moral relativism, leading often to moral confusion and ultimately, a moral void. It’s not the transgression, but the forgetting. That’s where I think we are today.
To be clear, I believe that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints. I speak here of a constructive morality of responsibility; a morality that respects the dignity of every human being—and the integrity of God’s natural world.
It’s a perilous time for our nation, as we rebuild our society from its multiple systemic failures revealed in the face of the pandemic. We are also on the verge of ruining the planet.
In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks last book, (may his memory be for a blessing) titled Morality; Restoring the Common Good in Historic Times, he describes how we live in today.
“A free society is a moral achievement. Over the past fifty years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored, or denied. This is why liberal democracy is at risk.
Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for all of us together.
If we focus on the “I” and lose the “We,” if we act on self interest without a commitment to the common good… we will lose so much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a future of competitive victimhood. In an age of unprecedented possibilities, people will feel vulnerable, humiliated, and alone.
The market will be merciless. Politics will be deceiving, divisive, confrontational, and extreme. People will feel anxious… aggressive, unstable, unrooted, and unloved. They will focus on promoting themselves instead of the one thing that will give them lasting happiness; making life better for others. Freedom itself will be at risk from the far right and the far left…”.
What are the moral principles of MIshpatim that can inspire the vision we so urgently need to rebuild our nation?
First, Mishpatim says that knowledge of the law is the obligation of an entire people, not a privileged class of specialists. We are all responsible. Responding to the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites proclaim, (Ex. 24:7) “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” Our moral codes become our framework for living.
Second, Mishpatim commands us to balance both righteous and compassion. (Lev. 19:33-34) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Third, justice and compassion relate to friend and enemy alike. (Ex 23: 1-4) “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. When you encounter your enemy's ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him”.
Fourth, Etz Hayim notes that all the Torah's rules regarding slavery, debts, and indenture, inhibit economic enrichment at the expense of others. They are meant to protect the poor from exploitation. [ Ex. 22:24] "If you lend money to My people, to the poor...do not act toward them as a creditor. “ In other words, do not impose upon them a burden you would not take upon yourself were you in their shoes.
Fifth, and of central importance today, the laws of Mishpatim point to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people, and of humanity with the natural world.
To illustrate interconnection and interdependence, I will quote from the renowned scholar of twentieth century eastern European history, Timothy Snyder, in his latest book Our Malady; Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.
In December 2019, hospitalized with sepsis, he was paralyzed and gravely ill. He kept a journal of the powerful emotions that rescued him from near death. In his prologue, titled “Solitude and Solidarity” he writes; “It was an intense rage and a gentle empathy that sustained me…I felt nothing cleaner and more intense than my rage against deathly illness…. The rage was beautifully pure, undefiled by an object…. I raged therefore I was.
My first extended thought after surgery was about uniqueness. No one had ever moved through life as I had, making just the same choices….I wanted my rage to lead out of the bed and into another year…. My rage was my life….
Yet slowly and softly a second mood impinged, one that sustained me in a different way; a feeling that life was only truly life insofar as it was not only about me….I recited to myself the way my children’s lives were bound to my own. What mattered was not that I was unique but that I was theirs; their father. Every bit of their existence involved the expectation of my presence. They had never not touched me….I imagined what would change without me…I watched their future unfold without me in my mind’s eye—and then I reeled it back.
This…recognition, that my life was not my own, this gentle empathy escorted me away from death. The rage helped me see myself. The empathy placed me among others…it was not important that I was unique and special. It was important that I was inside other people, in their memories and expectations, a support in the shape of their lives, a buoy during difficult passages.
The empathy… worked together with the rage. Each mood revealed a truth, an element of me. Neither was enough, I needed both…the fire and the water, the solitude and the solidarity… to get well, to be free. ”
Plato said, “The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos, and live in another’s world.”
Finally, the study of Torah and the keeping of Shabbat anchors us in all of this: With these practices, performed within community to create community across our differences, we safeguard it, our collective remembering, the integrity of our moral laws, and our faith traditions.
To summarize, at this perilous fork in the road of our nation’s history, we need to bring the “we” back into our consciousness. We are all responsible, and it moves us away from our dualistic mindset.
Our problem is discursive. If we do not talk differently, we won’t think differently. We need a language, a moral narrative, to articulate our moral instincts. We need to engage in ethically informed conversations, across our differences.
Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it bring about a better society and a better world? These are the general questions we must ask with a view to the welfare of the whole.
In addition, in the name of our interconnectedness and interdependence, we need to rethink the role of the “public”. What are the public policies that would bring about a just, compassionate, and more peaceful society, public policies that respect the dignity of all people? What are we willing to commit to make that happen?
I believe our young people have the vision we need. I hear it in The Students’ Prayer.
The Students’ Prayer:
God, help our country to seek equality amongst people, that all minorities are treated fairly, and create peace between political standpoints.
May this country be blessed with peace, justice, and acceptance. May our leaders be guided by the strength of truth and compassion. Let our leaders be wise and helpful in their decisions for everyone to be treated equally, and with respect.
In times of uncertainty, allow us to continue leading a life of gratitude and kindness. Allow us to continue creating special memories with the people we love. Allow us to let times of uncertainty not make us weaker, but even stronger than we were before.
There are lots of reasons to be scared, and many reasons to be frustrated. But the unseeable future will be better. We need to be optimistic. We decide when change is needed, and we take the steps to make that happen.
May we feel connected and stable, feel steady emotionally and mentally, feel healthy and in the right mindset, feel ready to overcome the obstacles in our path, feel safe making our decisions, feel prepared and educated for the unknown, and feel accepted for our actions and words.
And let us say: Amen.
– Adath Confirmation Class of 2021/5781, January 19, 2021 (Inauguration Eve)
Conversation over Kiddush:
Here is a quote from Dr. Yehuda Kurzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It’s his definition of pluralism from a lecture, “Pluralism in the Face of Injustice”.
"True pluralism...is rooted in the belief that truth itself includes a diversity of viewpoints, and it translates into the commitment to build societies of mutual respect. Pluralism is a belief system in which we make room for the opinions and whole selves of others, and a tool to build a society that is improved by the presence of difference."
Adath clergy, staff and congregants share