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Parashat Mishpatim

February 12, 202130
Sh'vat 5781

Parashat Mishpatim
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

Dear Friends,

Last week, we were given the Ten Commandments; this week, we were given the rules by which to live. Even in our Torah, these rules do not remain static. They deepen with meaning as we go forward from Exodus to Leviticus to Deuteronomy. If only we could do the same as human beings, deepen our understandings and become more expansive in our understanding of the world around us. Particularly in these days as our worlds have gotten smaller with the restrictions that the pandemic has placed upon us, it becomes even more of a stretch to understand those whose lives are different from our own. What is our ethical imperative? How do we go beyond merely having tolerance for one another to truly caring?

Once more, our tradition provides a path forward. Even within our tradition, coming to a place of understanding about those who are different from us is a process. Our tradition reminds us that it is a journey with a different timetable for each of us, while clearly marking that that journey has a clear destination.

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we are told: "You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” ( Exodus 23:9) Notice that we are being told what not to do, based upon our memory of what happened to us. Although our anger and desire for revenge might be justified, we are asked to have empathy for others. But more than that, we are asked to recall the times that we have been personally oppressed, so that we can begin to understand the oppression of others.

This injunction deepens as we continue forward in the Torah when we are told in Leviticus, not as part of a prohibition, but as part of an injunction, “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 the LORD am your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) We are being asked to do more than remember; we are being asked to act -- an act of love, an act of caring, an act of chesed. The Torah is pushing us to go beyond our immediate circle, to go beyond, to those who have been othered. In our case, we may be pushed to connect with those who live "down the hill" or on the other side of the Bronx or on the Mexico border or across the world who may need us to reach out, for we too were once vulnerable.

And then we come to Deuteronomy, where the injunction takes on another dimension. “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).

All of a sudden, this matter is greater than who we are as individuals. We are being asked to behave in a Divine manner -- to take on the best attributes of the Divine. It's a bit of a stretch... a bit of an ask... after all, how are we to accomplish this incredible task? I am left with the belief that this is a process, and it is dependent upon our own unique relationship with the Divine.

However, whether or not we have the deep belief in the Divine expressed here, we are being challenged to find that which is best within each of us. It is far easier not to stretch and simply stay the way we are, or as have we so recently witnessed, to go out and hurt others, refusing to understand or see others. As Rabbi Shai Held, whose writing on this Torah portion inspired my words, said “…even when it is difficult to hear, the fate of the stranger is our responsibility.”

This week as we go forward, our task is to find compassion, first for ourselves, and then for others. No one ever said our task was easy. But so very much hinges upon our willingness to walk down the road that our Torah has given us, learning step bt step as we go that we are all human beings on this journey together.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, June 15 2021 5 Tammuz 5781