Tuesday, February 25, 2020

D’var Misphatim

Today I’d like to talk to you about this past weekend’s parshah: Mishpatim. To do so, though, I’ll go one week farther back to Yitro to set the stage. At the end of Yitro, the tribes were camped out at the base of Mount Sinai, G-d has just spoken the ten commandments, and Moses has come down from the mountain to address the people. As he did, they
וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק׃
witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (Exodus 20:15)
So what do they say? They tell Moses that they hear and will obey, but ask that G-d not speak to them because they’re afraid hearing G-d will kill them. Moses gets them to chill out, and then tells them briefly how to build an altar the right way. He shows them that the intense display of power isn’t the way that future praying and religious experiences will necessarily be. Thus ends Yitro.

Now, we get to Mishpatim, the reading from this past week. Immediately after this description of how to build a place to interact with G-d safely, we start with this sentence:
וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃
These are the rules that you shall set before them (Exodus 21:1)
What would you expect to happen next? We’ve just heard about the altar. Would it follow up with a litany of rules about how to pray? Requirements of the priesthood, cleanliness, or a description of how to build the ark of the covenant? We know that’s coming, right? Maybe there’s rules pertaining to sacrifices and related rituals? It could even be a listing of holidays or festivals.

But none of this happens.

Instead, we get rules around the treatment of slaves (Hebrew slaves, to be precise, but that’s a story for another time). We’re told not just the length of servitude, though we start with that (six years, if you’re curious). But we’re also instructed how slaves should be treated and under what circumstances they must be set free, and what is due to them when they are.
אִם־בְּגַפּ֥וֹ יָבֹ֖א בְּגַפּ֣וֹ יֵצֵ֑א אִם־בַּ֤עַל אִשָּׁה֙ ה֔וּא וְיָצְאָ֥ה אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃
If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. (Exodus 21:3)
אִם־רָעָ֞ה בְּעֵינֵ֧י אֲדֹנֶ֛יהָ אֲשֶׁר־לא [ל֥וֹ] יְעָדָ֖הּ וְהֶפְדָּ֑הּ לְעַ֥ם נָכְרִ֛י לֹא־יִמְשֹׁ֥ל לְמָכְרָ֖הּ בְּבִגְדוֹ־בָֽהּ׃
If [a female slave] proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her. (Exodus 21:8)
Why might these rules come at this time? As I pondered this question, I thought about what had just happened.

To reiterate, a terribly frightening power, much greater than their own, made itself known before them. They shrank back in fear while also promising to obey. After a brief safety lesson, G-d tells Moses to instruct the people of Israel about how to treat those in positions of inferior power to themselves.

In other words, they’re being told to treat others well not because of their ability to retaliate, but because it’s the right thing to do. Just as the tribes want to be safe with G-d, slaves must be safe with their masters. The duty of a person in a position of authority is not to command and dictate, but to protect and care for those under their power.

Think of all the relationships you have in your lives. We’re all (ostensibly) grown-ups, so have implicit power when it comes to children -- both our own, and those of others. Maybe you’re a manager or you lead a company. Sometimes you may go out to eat and be served by waitstaff or helped by employees at retail and grocery stores. In any of these relationships and interactions, we stand in positions of strength.

Rather than thinking about the obligation of our children to obey us, or our employees to follow our directives, or the waiter to refill our water and make sure they keep that darn onion off the tuna sandwich, take a moment to consider our responsibilities to them.

It’s easy with our own kids to think of what we should do. What about the children of others in our neighborhoods, here at our synagogue, or out at the mall or public parks? How must we protect and care for them?

As a leader in a company, we’re responsible for helping our teams grow, find purpose in the work, and have the time to balance their lives with what they do for work. We’re even responsible for helping them become the best versions of themselves, work-wise, in their career in general. They may someday move on, but that doesn’t free us from our obligation to do well by them while they’re working with us.

For the people we meet whose jobs it is to serve us, we must remember they, too, are human. We are obligated to remember their needs as we ask them to help us fulfill our own. Understand their flaws and limitations, and, as long as we don’t see malice, don’t hold them to a different standard than we hold ourselves.

Later in the parsha, we see an example of this described:
מַכֵּ֥ה אִ֛ישׁ וָמֵ֖ת מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃ וַאֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א צָדָ֔ה וְהָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אִנָּ֣ה לְיָד֑וֹ וְשַׂמְתִּ֤י לְךָ֙ מָק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָנ֖וּס שָֽׁמָּה׃
He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of G-d, I will assign you a place to which he can flee. (Exodus 21: 13-14)
There is specific allowance made for the intentionality of an act. If the waiter forgets about that onion and demonstrates remorse, taking the sandwich back to be remade with an apology, don’t dock their tip in anger. If your child tries to get down the candlesticks to celebrate Shabbat and accidentally knocks over your dear departed Aunt Ester’s irreplaceable ceramic havdallah set smashing it to a million pieces and now you have to deal with that on top of everything else, cool your jets.

The parsha goes on to discuss other impacts people may have on the world around them. This includes the well known “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” language, demonstrating once again that might does not make right. Just because you can smack the other person down doesn’t give you the right to do so, and they are owed in kind for the damage done to them.

If an ox kills a person, the ox is put to death and its flesh not eaten. The owner receives no further punishment than the loss of the ox.
וְאִ֡ם שׁוֹר֩ נַגָּ֨ח ה֜וּא מִתְּמֹ֣ל שִׁלְשֹׁ֗ם וְהוּעַ֤ד בִּבְעָלָיו֙ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְרֶ֔נּוּ וְהֵמִ֥ית אִ֖ישׁ א֣וֹ אִשָּׁ֑ה הַשּׁוֹר֙ יִסָּקֵ֔ל וְגַם־בְּעָלָ֖יו יוּמָֽת׃
If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:29)
In addition, if someone digs a pit and their neighbor’s animal falls in and dies, the hole digger is responsible to make restitution.

All this is to say that people are required to be responsible not only for their own actions directly, but also the impacts those have on the world. Carelessness and failing to respond to a known threat increases the culpability and thereby the punishment. We must not sleepwalk through life, and we cannot hide behind ignorance to excuse our missteps.

While we may not have all the power, as shown at the foot of Mount Sinai, we must still recognize the power we do possess. We are all expected to be active agents in our world. Oh- and if you do find yourself afraid of the lightning and the thunder, just go listen to some Imagine Dragons, sing along, and call it a day.

Parsha link

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