Monday, February 27, 2017

Parshat Mishpatim 2017/5777

In the Midrash, Rabbi Joshua’s nephew Hananiah taught: Just as in the sea there are ripples and wavelets between each major wave, so between each of the Ten Commandments there are Torah’s minutiae, both written and unwritten. Rambam teaches that when we consider each and every potential extension (all Toldot) and every imaginable iteration of each and every Mitzvah, it is impossible to imagine such a voluminous and complete understanding of what is the spirit and the meaning of each and every law.

In addressing this impossible task, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler teaches as follows:

Standing at the foot of the Holy Mountain the entire People of Israel have now witnessed and received the Ten Commandments (or “Ten Utterances”…) Moses then ascends the mountain and disappears into the mysterious cloud that obscures its summit. Here this week’s portion begins: V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifnayhem – And these are the rules that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1) What follows is a detailed law code covering damages, civil law, criminal law, capital offenses – the fine print of the covenant, and the foundation of a living code of law that sustains Jewish discourse and codes of behavior to this day.

These are the ripples and wavelets that bring our Aseret HaDibrot and all Given Law to life. These details are the clothing that allows us to interface with the skeletal ideals that we are given that should dictate how we live individually and collectively; and in turn will inform further development and definition of our laws as we continue in our existence. This is the beginning of Civil Law as we know it, where everyone in society has rights and everyone who has more privilege than others have responsibility towards those who are less resourced in any way.

It is interesting to note that in discussion of law, we are told that there are משפטים and חוקים – the second of these are those laws that we do not necessarily understand but do because they were dictated, whereas the first, from which our Parsha takes its name are those laws that (elmaleh she’hem lo ichtivu) even if they were not written, we would know to do them as thinking rational human beings. Would we? All we have to do is look around our world today and note that there is still abuse, slavery, degradation of human beings and so much else that is proscribed against in this Parsha – yes, those laws that we would do even if they were not written – if, that is, we have a conscience and a sense of good and bad or not so good. These ideas of shared and reasonable use of power, freedom and initiative are at the root of all of Jewish law as reflected in our Torah and in the commentaries that will further explain both the letter and the spirit of its letter.

Einat Kramer, the founder and director of Teva Ivri, a non-profit organization promoting Jewish social-environmental action in Israel and the coordinator of the Israeli Shmita Initiative understands this well. Her organization is a nationwide coalition that seeks to restore the meaning of the Shmita year (mentioned in our Parsha in 23:10 ff, immediately after being told וגר לא תלחץ as a time of holding back not just in terms of our relationship to the land but also in our relationship to each other – using this SHABBAT, if you will, for personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel in which the notions of shared destiny and cooperative spirit dictate decisions made.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the seemingly fantastical story, though it is absolutely true, of Csanad Szegedi, the leader of Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, which cited as one of its foundational beliefs that Jews were indeed trying to control the world and as recently as April 2014, was asking for a list of all Jews that are in any way connected to the Hungarian government for purposes that cannot be for their benefit. However, at this point, the party was no longer under Szegedi’s leadership because in 2012, he found out that he was indeed a Jew. While being ostracized and villianized by those he led for so long in solidarity while maligning others, Szegedi today is a practicing Shomer Mitzvot Jew who has undergone complete conversion even though he was Jewish according to his rooted identity. His name is David.

Today he works to defend human rights for all people. He has stated as follows, “I am aware of my responsibility and I know I will have to make it right in the future.” Here is an example of someone who now observes these משפטים but apparently came to them not from a basic and natural inbred knowledge as suggested in our Gemara, but rather through learning and more akin to the notion of “וגר לא תלחץ “ (found in Chapter 23.9 in our Parsha is one of the 36 times this is cited as a requirement of Torah based practice) – NOT to oppress the other for we had that experience and know what it feels like. One would like to think that our basic human instincts are to be good, but unfortunately way too much glitter and personal validation and other extraneous stuff gets in the way of that instinct, if indeed it is so.

As Sacks narrates this rather remarkable story, he teaches us that

What makes us human is the fact that we are rational, reflective, capable of thinking things through. We feel empathy and sympathy, and this begins early… Yet much of human history has been a story of violence, oppression, injustice, corruption, aggression and war.

The core elements of Parshat Mispatim insure that hopefully we work towards the former of feeling empathy and concern for the other and not the latter where power overtakes and precludes all use of reason and identity with those in a different station in life than the one in power. In the Code of Hummarabi, for example, so much of the law is to protect the King and his rule. Here the ideal expressed by Einat Kramer above is what holds sway in the details – the waves and ripples of this Parsha of Civil Law. In fact this reinforces the fact that religion properly practiced for the observing Jew is NOT singularly about rite and ritual, but rather that is merely representative of and part of the daily life well and appropriately lived. As I often teach, most of the Gemara, Mishneh Torah and the volumes of other “How To” appendices to our Book of Law is about our dealings in business, our treatment of family, our use of land, our taking care of each other and NOT about the RITUAL of Jewish Life. Baba Kamma 30a is just one of many texts in which we are taught that the chasid, the pious Jew is one who is knowledgeable about and agile in the practice of civil and tort law. Is this natural or too demanding as we consider every possible motivation and evolution of the laws and practices we are given through Rabbinic generations of insuring that we live justly and practice intentionally?

We learn in Baba Kamma 79:2 as follows regarding that Rabbinic extension of law as Rambam referred to in indicating that this is an almost limitless task:

אין גוזרין גזרה על הצבור אלא אם כן רוב צבור יכולין לעמוד בה - A decree cannot be made if the majority of the public cannot follow it.

Unfortunately, it feels like more and more of our public are not following the basic standards of behavior that our Parsha would have us assume as human beings. So do we forget these basic human instinctive proper behaviors?

Part of the darker reality of life is clearly found in this Parsha, as we talk about the existence of servitude, selling of daughters, murder, injury to others, death caused by animals and other challenges to life as seen in the culture of the Torah, and still evident in our lives today. So what do we do with this code of behavior? The Jewish ideal is NEVER idyllic, that is to say, this is not about the eradication of these practices and incidents, which will occur wherever human history plays itself out, but the question is what you will do about these realities of life. Einat Kramer, our social and environmentalism ethicist, presents a really interesting and provocative thought regarding the Yovel, the year after every seven cycles of Shemitah years. As in the Shemitah year, we are COMMANDED to allow the land to rest as we do every seventh period of counted time, the Yovel is something that has not occurred in our history since the B’nai Yisrael lived tribally in a fixed location. It is not something that we do but rather is the idyllic – the time when all land goes back to original owners, all individuals have complete and total personal agency and all live in peace.

It is, says Kramer, our idea of Utopia – to be striven for in our daily actions, acknowledging both those elements of our lives that tempt us to not be the best we can be while trying to withstand their lure and striving for what are hopefully those actions that should indeed be the frame for our lives and be those behaviors that we would observe as Sacks’ thinking and rational human beings, not needed to be told to be, well human and caring. These are our משפטים – let them continue to guide us and remind us both of our experiences that have taught us well and our instincts that will hopefully serve us as well.

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