Friday, February 9, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Mishpatim, in which we receive the directive, “You shall do no harm to the stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, and you shall not harm the widow or the orphan.” Countless times throughout Torah (well, I’m sure someone has counted them at some point, but it’s a lot and I’m not good with keeping track of numbers), God reminds us to care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Sometimes it’s a reminder, as with this first occurrence, to simply not harm them. Sometimes God tells us to actively look out for them or to even love them. Sometimes the Torah reminds us to treat them equally, to have one law for all Israelites and our resident non-Jews among us. Many very smart rabbis before me have commented on this repetition to say that the Torah wouldn’t bother giving and re-giving this instruction if A) it wasn’t super important and B) if it wasn’t also a little bit hard.
If this weren’t important, God wouldn’t mention it. Or maybe it would be given once, among many other warnings about things that help give us structure to our Jewish lives and remind us to do the other more important things. Like the commandment to leave the sides of our heads or the corners of our clothing unshorn, which maybe by itself isn’t important, but it’s a ritual reminder to leave the corners of our fields unharvested so that the hungry may come and eat with dignity. Today, so many of us don’t grow payos or wear tzitzit on a regular basis, but as long we as remember to give to the hungry and honor the humanity in those less fortunate than ourselves, we are upholding the spirit of these laws. But commandment to care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow, is repeated so many times because it is in itself so very important to shaping our own humanity as righteous Jews as well. These categories are named specifically because of their vulnerability to exploitation. These are people who are considered outsiders to the mainstream culture, and/or who have lost their access to financial stability and their voice in the community. These are people who have lost their normal structures of support, whether familial or communal, through accident or through political strife and refugee status. In order to regain safety and health, they need a new community who will step up and help resettle them or their household affairs. They need support that is emotional, social, and physical. They need the same care that all of us need, but have fewer options from which to receive that care, and so the Torah reminds us again and again that it is incumbent on each of us to share their burdens, to build a welcoming community that has some resources to share, to look out for those who are vulnerable, to treat everyone who seeks to join our community equally, regardless of our perceived differences.
However, if this were an easy instruction to follow, we’d already be doing it, and doing it well at that. The Israelites would have been already demonstrating to God that they knew how to do it with the mixed multitudes that left Egypt for them. Neither the ancient Israelites nor we would need the constant reminders and different phrasing if God thought we could be trusted to follow the rule the first time it was given. Humans clearly have an entrenched problem with xenophobia that all communities have their own troubles overcoming, and modern Jews have serious security concerns of their own that sometimes lead to community gatekeeping. We can recognize these safety concerns and acknowledge the real roots of our fears and exclusivity, but we have to be willing to navigate them in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
Because if we do cause harm to others, especially to strangers in our communities, to widows, or to orphans God reminds us, God will hear their cries. The language in this threat is a reminder again to the reasoning: “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt and you know the feelings of the oppressed.” In Parashat Shemot, it tells us that God heard the cries of the Israelites and moves to help them. So too, now, if the stranger, the widow, or orphan, cry out to God, God will move to help them as well, and the result may not be as good for those who have done the oppressing. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is quoted as saying “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.” Although the Rev. Dr.’s movement was one of non-violence, some who feel they must demand their freedom with all their might have turned to violence. Imagine what a world we might live in, if they didn’t have to make those demands at all. If there was no oppression to begin with, or if those with privilege moved to cease such harm as soon as they realized they were contributing to it.
Later, in Deuteronomy, when this demand is repeating yet again, the Torah will tell us that caring for these vulnerable and exploited classes is “walking in God’s way.” The Prophet Micah tells us to act justly, love goodness, and walk with God.  May we find this path of justice, goodness, and holiness. May we act with compassion to those in need and open our doors and our arms to all who seek to be a part of our community. And May we walk with God all the days of our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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