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Parashat Mishpatim

January 28, 2022
26 Sh'vat 5782
Parashat Mishpatim
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

Dear Friends,

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not usually the day I set aside to remember the Shoah. This year I noticed more of my Jewish colleagues and friends acknowledging it than in previous years. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 — the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau — as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. As seen in the original text below, its intent was to make a statement that would be palatable to everyone, with the effect of marginalizing the primary victims of the Nazi regime — Jews.

“On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.”

Today we find ourselves in a different moment from years past, when so many are being "othered" and looking at the horrors perpetrated on so many others really has a purpose. The disintegration of civil society under the Nazi regime that crossed national boundaries left behind scars that have yet to heal. In this moment, we see people being treated in ways that recall the Nazi era, although certainly not in the exact same way. We are being asked to reflect upon the horrors of the past, our capacity as human beings to dehumanize one another, so as not repeat past injustices and heal the rifts that currently exist. Only by sharing our stories with one another, not only the stories of the past but our current stories can we begin to take stock of our own behavior and strive to be different toward one another, recognizing our common humanity. We have a responsibility to one another. The way we operate in the world makes a difference.

I find it so powerful that our Torah portion comes at just the right moment to highlight this idea. We are reading Mishpatim this Shabbat. The word Mishpatim means laws. We have a tendency to perceive rules and regulations as dry and boring, but they aren't -- the laws reflect our story. In his book, Lessons on Leadership, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflects on how laws come about because of human events. Many of those stories are lost when we look at most legal systems, but when we look at our laws, their connection to our story is clearly there for all to see and reflect upon.

This year I will focus on the laws concerning how we treat the "other," and how they get refracted through our story within the Torah, from when we first encounter it in Exodus, then in Leviticus, and finally in Deuteronomy.

First we have Exodus 22:20 -23:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

כׇּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃
You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan.

אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתֽוֹ׃
If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to me.

וְחָרָ֣ה אַפִּ֔י וְהָרַגְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם בֶּחָ֑רֶב וְהָי֤וּ נְשֵׁיכֶם֙ אַלְמָנ֔וֹת וּבְנֵיכֶ֖ם יְתֹמִֽים׃ {פ}
and My anger shall blaze forth and I will ut you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

The language here is in the imperative and in the negative. Don’t do it! You just had this experience, do not put it on others. Then we have the same law in Leviticus, only the tone has totally changed. The people are on a journey and with it their view of themselves and their neighbors needs to change. There is a sense that we are all in this together.

Leviticus 19:33-34:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה

אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
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 Adonai am your God.

And finally, we get the next level of how we should treat others in Deuteronomy. It is because of our relationship with the Divine that we are enjoined to behave with loving care to the stranger in our midst.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19:

כִּ֚י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם ה֚וּא אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וַאֲדֹנֵ֖י הָאֲדֹנִ֑ים הָאֵ֨ל הַגָּדֹ֤ל הַגִּבֹּר֙ וְהַנּוֹרָ֔א אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹא־יִשָּׂ֣א פָנִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א

יִקַּ֖ח שֹֽׁחַד׃
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,

עֹשֶׂ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט יָת֖וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֑ה וְאֹהֵ֣ב גֵּ֔ר לָ֥תֶת ל֖וֹ לֶ֥חֶם וְשִׂמְלָֽה׃
but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.—

וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

What we are given here is a mature relationship. God’s power is not based purely upon strength, it is based upon compassion and justice. And so we are left with a challenge appropriate for these times. If we are to walk in God’s ways, we are to love and care for those God loves: the orphan, the widow and the stranger. This mission brings us back to the beginning, we are to do this because what we have been through; more importantly, this is the best way that we can be of service to the Divine. Not an easy mission, but certainly a sacred one.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sun, December 4 2022 10 Kislev 5783