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Parashat Mishpatim

February 17, 2023
26 Sh'vat 5783
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18, 30:11-16

Dear Friends,

As I write this week, the challenge is how to bring an important conversation about women’s reproductive health and health in general into alignment with the other two key principles embedded in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, Laws (Exodus 21:1-24:18).

This Torah portion is, in large part, all about the follow -up to the big principles expressed in the Ten Commandments, with very particular laws about the ways in which we should conduct ourselves. Women’s health and their role in society makes up a small segment of this Torah portion.

We are preparing to observe Reproductive Rights Shabbat this evening. This week's text teaches us that the life of the unborn fetus is not equal to the life of the mother. Many subsequent Jewish scholars and rabbis continue this conversation, which has become live and central once more. Our tradition teaches that the life of the mother takes precedence over that of the unborn child, particularly during the early stages of pregnancy.

"When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning." (Exodus 21:22)

The conversation about women’s health and reproductive rights pulls me back into the Torah portion and the repetition of two very important parts of our collective story. We are told again and again: “Do not mistreat or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21) and Do not oppress a stranger, you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (23:9). These two phrases are ways of telling us that our story matters, not just to ourselves, but to those around us who are being othered. It is through this remembering of our story that we develop empathy for others.

Nehama Leibowitz points out, “because you have been oppressed you may be more tempted to lord it over someone else when you finally have power”. Hence, we are taught the importance to recall our own experience and internalize it and use it as a way to reach out to those who have been othered.

Carol Gilligan posited that men more commonly operate out of abstract principle while women are more interested in context and relationship -- not that this difference is hard-wired, but that it derives from a different set of experiences and expectations. Therefore, women often (not always) are the prime storytellers among us.

Going back to our Torah portion, it is crucial to see that our ancestors went beyond gender to understand that our story, the story we tell ourselves and others, makes a difference in how we live our lives.

In this time when men are primarily the ones making decisions about women’s health and women’s bodies, maybe it’s time for some storytelling and a reminder to put oneself in another person's shoes. If we are able to heed Nehama Leibowitz’s warning we will be able to see ourselves and our story in the stories of others.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Tue, October 3 2023 18 Tishrei 5784