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February 21, 2020
26 Sh'vat 5780

Parashat Mishpatim
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

Dear Friends,

In last week’s Torah portion, we received the Ten Commandments at Sinai. This week, the content is all in the details -- Mishpatim, meaning laws (Exodus 21:1-24:18). We are given details on how to live within a legal system, primarily telling us that which we are not supposed to do. Underpinning these laws and their obligatory voice is a sense of an ethical imperative.

There are those that say that this Torah portion marks the moment when we are no longer passive consumers of our ancestors’ story. It is the moment when the story becomes ours, as we are given tools that will shape the way we live. This moment within the Torah marks our personal entry into the covenantal relationship with the Divine. The law is not simply about dos and don’ts; it is an instruction manual on how to construct a civil society and live with one another. Some of the laws appear to have little application to us today, but if we delve into them, we will find their value.

Another piece of what is going on in Mishpatim, which is not always clear, is the importance of making this transition without taking on the mantle of the victor (the ones who subdued the Egyptians) to become the oppressor. We are reminded throughout the remainder of the Torah that what we were given goes beyond cold legal formulas. This code puts us in direct relationship to the Divine and to those around us. In this portion it seems as if the commandments are being explicated; honoring one's parents means not striking them, responsibility for one's property is critical (whether an open pit or an ox that gores), and taking care of the widow and the orphan (seen as the most vulnerable among us) is important. The list goes on.

It is here, among this list of laws, that we are reminded of our own journey from slavery to freedom. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Even when things appear to going well that injunction is core to who we are as a people and as individual

Rabbi Shai Held teaches that we are charged to turn memory into empathy -- to moral responsibility. Let’s look at this stranger more closely. The Torah is referring to someone who is not part of a tribe or a family, someone who might be subject to oppression based on their tenuous status within the community. In Exodus, we are reminded not once but twice to remember that we were once in the same position.

The Torah turns this “do not” into a “do” in Leviticus 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. I am Adonai, your God.” This instruction is a shift. We are being asked to do more than remember. We are exhorted to actively embrace and care for the strangers among us.

If all of this has not been stated clearly enough in Exodus and Leviticus, we are pushed one step further in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, we are reminded of the Divine’s qualities and what is wanted of us in order to walk in God’s path and care for those who have been othered. “For Adonai your God is God supreme and Adonai supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)

The path to holiness is thus to recognize ourselves and our journeys in the journeys of others so that we can see and remember that we too were strangers in a strange land and may be once again.

Our task is clear, although not simple. We must hold out our hands to one another and treat one another with care, mercy, and empathy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781