Saturday, July 28, 2018



In honor of my father, I delivered this essay as the d'var Torah (words of Torah, or sermon) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on July 28, 2018. The 7th anniversary of my father's death, on the Jewish calendar, would be the coming Wednesday. 

This was the first I've felt nervous before speaking in a long time. I knew there was risk in delivering these words. Thanks to a sudden inspiration just before I came up to the lectern, I set the stage by telling a story of when my son was a child and he pre-negotiated my understanding and patience ("promise you won't lose it with me") before telling me he'd bounced a super ball in his room and right through the glass of his front window...leading to some valuable lessons learned. I asked the congregation also to not lose it, because what I was about to say may be jarring but maybe we'd find things to learn together if they stuck with me.

My father, of course, always was frightened for me when I took risks; but he also was proud of me once I had. I hope this essay would have made him proud.

Vocabulary notes:

  • Parashah = weekly Torah portion
  • Torah = the Five Books of Moses
  • Va-etḥannan = the name of the week's portion, which encompasses Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
  • JPS Tanach = An edition of the complete Hebrew bible published by the Jewish Publication Society
  • Humash = the Torah in printed form (rather than in the sacred scroll)
  • Etz Hayyim humash = a particular printing of the humash from the Rabbinical Assembly of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, with translation and commentary; the edition is titled "Etz Hayyim" or "Tree of Life"
  • Adonai = a term for God that I use when the translation says "Lord," as I am uncomfortable with the gendered translation


I don’t like God very much, in this parashah.

Running a search on the JPS Tanach translation, I found God described as “impassioned” three times and “compassionate” only once. God’s mood is portrayed three times as angry, while God’s love for us mentioned just once—yet our required love for God surfaces three times.

These data underscore the emotional response I feel when reading the parashah this year—that it portrays God primarily as an angry and self-referential authoritarian.

I’ve studied, written and spoken about Va-etḥannan before, and this isn’t always what rises to the top for me.  Just last year, speaking on the occasion of my father’s yahrzeit as I am today, I focused on the imperative of social justice for living in community and the urgency of teaching the next generation. I have scribbled notes in my Etz Hayyim humash, over the years, about our role in serving as a positive example; about the moment of the covenant transcending generations; about going even beyond the mitzvot to “do what is right and good” (Deut. 6:18); and of course about the inclusion of the Decalogue and the Shema.

But when I turned to Va-etḥannan this year, these are the passages that stood out:
You saw with your own eyes what Adonai did in the matter of Baal-peor, that Adonai your God wiped out from among you every person who followed Baal-peor; while you, who held fast to Adonai your God, are all alive today. (Deut. 4:3-4)
Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that Adonai your God concluded with you…. For Adonai your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God. (Deut. 4:23-24)
For I Adonai your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Deut. 5:9-10)
Do not follow other gods, any gods of the people about you—for Adonai your God in your midst is an impassioned God—lest the anger of Adonai your God blaze forth against you and God wipe you off the face of the earth. (Deut 6:14-15)
Why is this how I am experiencing the text? The answer came to me last weekend while reading the novel The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton. It’s about five young women who form a tight bond while living in Palo Alto, California, in the 60s and 70s. One, Ally, is a white woman who married an Indian man and faced discrimination from many fronts. Here’s a passage:
Ally couldn’t say when, exactly, she’d fallen in love with Jim. Maybe that first moment she’d heard his lyrical voice—“excuse me, ma’am”—before she’d even looked up to see his face.
She knew her parents might be reluctant, that they’d worry about the problems she and Jim and their children would face. But she never imagined they would refuse to have Jim in their home, even to meet him. She never imagined that her father wouldn’t walk her down the aisle in the end, that she’d be married by a justice of the peace in Ann Arbor, in a dress she’d owned for years.
“I was sure my mom and dad would embrace Jim eventually,” she would tell us later. “You can’t know Jim and not love him. I never imagined they never would come to know him, that when I told them we were married they’d hide their goddamned prejudice behind the excuse that Jim wasn’t Christian.”
And while we were blinking at that—at Ally swearing and meaning it—she would say, “’For I, the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’ Those were the last words my mother said to me, the last time she acknowledged I was alive. A quote from the goddamned Bible, from Exodus, for Christ goddamned sake.”
The quote is indeed from Exodus—Chapter 20, verse 5. And Va-etḥannan echoes it.

Ally’s late 1960s fictional mother cites religious belief to justify hate and quotes biblical text to validate turning against her own daughter. In 2018, real-life figures are similarly misappropriating sacred text. I believe most of us recall that last month Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended Administration immigration policy that led to the separation of thousands of children from their parents by saying, “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

A June 15 article in Slate pointed out that the same Christian bible passage was used to defend slavery in the United States by arguing that it mandated obedience to the Fugitive Slave Act, that some European church leaders quoted it to promote submission to Hitler, and that it was cited to defend the status quo in Apartheid South Africa. Yet, Slate reports, theologians consider this a corruption of the passage that “places God as the appointer of authorities, but not the appointer of specific laws,” with the understanding that no one should respect or comply with the orders of those authorities if those orders are evil or unjust.

On March 19, Marco Rubio tweeted:
I will place boys as their princes; the fickle will govern them & the people will oppress one another, yes, each one the neighbor. The child will be insolent toward the elder & the base toward the honorable. Isaiah 3:4-5
His intent was to scold the youth who emerged as leaders in advocating for gun control because they didn’t trust elected officials to take action. Yet the full passage actually describes a world of chaos in which “People will oppress each other—man against man, neighbor against neighbor” and the children rise up because the elders are unable to lead, incapable of acting in their honored roles.

It’s a form of bullying—this misuse of holy text to justify controversial policy or condemnation of another's views. People in positions of power are yielding a literary tool of authority (however ineptly) to bludgeon their adversaries and hold sway over their followers.

Is it surprising that politicians usurp the bible to play the bully, when the God that emerges in Va-etḥannan could readily serve as a model for bullying? They might learn from the example of God’s actions against Baal-peor to frighten us into submission. Or from the image of a fire consuming those who fail to honor a covenant. Or from forcing a choice between future generations suffering guilt or experiencing kindness, that loyalty might be coerced rather than earned. Or from the potential to be wiped off the earth should that loyalty ever wander.

This reminds me that we have heard a lot about demands for loyalty in the current administration—loyalty to a single authority figure rather than to principle or to the responsibilities of a position. Turning back to The Wednesday Sisters, our current situation has parallels to the era in which the novel is set. The narrator explores her ambivalence about the anti-war protests, saying:
I believed—most American’s believed—that the spread of communism would be loss of freedom and torture and death, and perhaps even nuclear war. We never imagined the communist world would just collapse as it did in the Soviet Union years later. We thought the only way to preserve our lifestyle was to fight theirs. And we couldn’t, truthfully, imagine that America might be wrong. We didn’t like to imagine that what we were doing as a country could be imperialist or illegal or just plain immoral any more than we liked to imagine an America that could be defeated by a small country of small people we thought of as less intelligent and less compassionate and less worthy than we were. So we just didn’t imagine it.
How current this sounds—the incapacity to stand up against immoral government action, the acceptance when those different from us are portrayed as less important, intelligent, decent or worthy, because it’s all so beyond what we can let ourselves imagine. This mindset—in which we so want to believe good of our country and by extension its elected officials—has left us particularly vulnerable to those who will bully us into, if not full fealty, at least inaction.

And this doesn’t apply only to political leaders. We have seen many other examples in which holding positions of authority can open the door to bullying, predatory and harassing behavior. We want to believe the best of our companies, our bosses, our teachers…and we want them to think the best of us. The #MeToo movement has woken us up to the danger of this power dynamic and emboldened many women to speak up about our experiences. But this progress toward awareness in one dimension seems to brush aside the broader issue, as I repeatedly see people calling for gender diversity in work groups and conference panels without even taking notice that everyone in the room is white.

Does the example of the jealous, impassioned, easily angered, punishing aspect of God—the one who demands loyalty yet can confer great kindness and rewards—model, reinforce and serve to justify the bullying behaviors of political and other authorities? Or does monotheism guard against this because only God’s self holds the true role of authority, as exemplified in the parashah by Moses ascribing all that he describes to God—with his impending death resulting from the moment when he acted outside God’s authority? Or does our belief that we are created in God’s image communicate to some that they can seize authority through authoritarianism?

It really doesn’t matter whether I like God in this parashah. After all, God is…God.  Most religious constructs establish that there are beings—or as in our case a singular being—whose actions and decisions we may not understand but we accept as having purpose and reason.

But the rest of us are not God. Much of what Moses rails against here—what earns the threat of God's wrath in his oratory—is the setting up of false Gods. Let's not imagine that the sin of idolatry is limited to the graven image.  At every instance we must call out, speak against and bring down those who set themselves up as false...and bullying...gods.

Which brings us to the most important question I ask today: what is our responsibility, as students, interpreters and custodians of these sacred texts, to eradicate the oppression perpetrated by the bullies?



I ended my d'var Torah with a question. But here, I'd like to offer some possible answers. 
  1. I reject the notion I hear in many circles that rabbis should not preach political position from the pulpit.  That is so forceful in the Christian right and we just forfeit it for the most part. Anyone--particularly a community leader--who believes our political environment poses a critical threat to our humanity should use the tools she or he has to address that threat.
  2. When we cannot trust the Federal government to function within the conceit of a Democracy or for the best interests of the people, we must organize and act on a local and regional level and develop a deliberate structure of linkages among those local and regional efforts (which I believe large, systemic, humane nonprofits can help facilitate), so we end up with a national network strong enough to serve the nation and facile enough to serve localities in a manner that meets human needs and fights the injustices from the Administration. I believe even synagogues can have a role in that, our linkages with other local organizations can be a start of this network, and the larger Jewish governance bodies and foundations can further it.
I hope this is the start of a dialogue that helps us find our way to actively repairing our world. Please use the comments section to offer your answers.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


There are more people in Alabama moved to deny power to a multiply-accused child molester (which, for some reason, the media choose to couch as “sexual misconduct,” but that’s another essay altogether), and to cast their vote against an individual who can’t comprehend that tokenism and stereotyping is the embodiment of prejudice (one of our lawyers is a Jew; someone with our campaign is a black), than there people in Alabama unable to step away from party ideology.

Thank you.

Let’s remember that this triumph was true in the last presidential election as well. The majority of Americans voting chose to deny the bigot and sexual predator, despite that he won the Electoral College.

Right now, when it’s been more than a year since I could take heart in what’s emanating from our country’s political system, it feels good to remember that most of us do act on what we as individuals recognize in other individuals, rather than on the collective pressure of holding to party lines.

Tonight, the light of my Hanukkah candles will represent the ray of hope we received from Alabama last night.

Friday, November 10, 2017

This Is Not a Hollywood Story

During my freshman year of college, the professor in my small ancient history seminar followed me across campus to my dorm persistently asking me to go out with him. I refused. He thereafter would not allow me to speak in class; grading us 50% on class participation, he dropped mine from an A to a C. I’d never heard of sexual harassment. I didn’t have a vocabulary for what happened and it never occurred to me that I might have recourse. He was a hotshot, charismatic, young (but nearly 20 years my elder) professor on tenure track whom they’d recently snatched from a rival. A few years later, he abruptly was gone. Maybe because someone else was wiser and braver than I. But where did he go? To harass others at another school? I’ve questioned my silence throughout the years since.
Also during my freshman year of college, my brother’s best friend showed up at my dorm and tried to push his way into my room. (The buildings weren’t locked back then—we just had keys for our dorm rooms.) He’d driven nearly five hours to get there, and somehow knew where I lived—probably elicited from my brother in an innocent-seeming way. He had a notion that we would have a romantic relationship, though I was 17 and he was ten years older. I managed to keep him out of my room. About this I wasn’t completely quiet; I told my brother. The consequence to the perpetrator was the loss of their friendship.
About a year after I’d graduated from college, I was interviewing for a new job. It went well. After the formal interview had ended, I was sitting across the desk from the hiring manager making animated conversation.
He suddenly interrupted me: “You’re wearing an engagement ring.”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You’ll want to go on a honeymoon. Then you’ll want to have children. I can’t hire you.”
I awkwardly said goodbye and left. I never reported him to anyone. I had no understanding that there was anything to report.
On the day of the holiday party, months after taking my first ad agency job, someone let me know that the newest young woman on staff was expected to have a slow dance with the firm president at the event each year. That year, it was me. This sounded like a stupid joke (a tame one, in an environment rife with sexually explicit humor). But as the music turned slow, all eyes turned to me in expectation of taking the dance floor in his arms. And I did.
When I was pregnant with my first child and working at another ad agency, at review time my direct manager told me they would wait to decide about my annual increase until after it became clear whether my pregnancy would “make me feel sick” and affect my ability to work. By then, I knew a little more. I called a family member who was a labor attorney. She advised that it would be a difficult and extremely long process to try to make a discrimination claim. Instead, I used it as a bargaining chip. The firm was in buy-out and they were laying off junior staff as part of the merger. I told the agency president what had been said to me, and that I wanted to be laid off in lieu of the more junior staff in my department—with generous severance and full medical benefits until the birth of my child. He said yes, and I left with what I needed. But I hadn’t made anything better for the next person.
None of this is exceptional. The #MeToo outpouring has demonstrated that the accumulation of these events is an almost-every person experience, and my encounters have been harmless in comparison with the assaults and threats that many have endured. Sexual harassment, discrimination and assault have little to do with the glitter of Hollywood and much to do with the perception of power and its entitlement. I don’t judge those of us who failed to speak up; we did what we thought we could, to protect ourselves as best we knew how. I raised my daughter and my son on a couple of these stories (not all), with the hope of helping them to live a different experience. Now more victims are speaking more loudly and publicly, and their courage may help usher in the era of change that so many of us failed to expedite with our silence. Maybe it will spur us to raise a generation who take on responsibility rather than power. But only if we don’t get sidetracked into thinking that this is about Hollywood moguls, or about wayward politicians. It’s about perceived power, it’s about entitlement, it’s about all of us.

Monday, November 6, 2017

A Call to Mentorship

I have been thinking a lot about mentorship lately.

This isn’t new. My first foray into volunteerism (besides my stint at age eight helping my mother stuff envelopes and tagging after her door-to-door to support political candidates) was with Big Brothers Big Sisters when I was a college student. I have since served as a mentor, benefited from mentors, and set up programs for mentorship in any number of settings. Perhaps this was born of the extraordinary role so many unofficial mentors played in my life during my mother’s illness and after she died when I was 11 years old.

I believe that education and wealth disparity underpin many of the issues with which I’ve engaged in my career and personal life. And they underlie so much of the seemingly unending scope of struggles ripping at the fabric of society. I’m not trying to oversimplify; I do understand that there are layers of complexity. And that tells me that we must start somewhere foundational.

The Center for Promise has reported on “relationship poverty,” and the most effective mentorship—natural mentoring—is disproportionately within reach of higher-income youth according to The Mentoring Gap, a publication from Connected Learning Alliance. If we don’t address this, we add to the perpetuation of unequal opportunity. Plenty of the research and daily efforts from Public Health Management Corporation—where I worked during my last five years in Philadelphia—demonstrate the critical connection among levels of education, social capital, income and health. In fact, we understood that education and mentorship could fall within the broad canopy of public health so we incorporated programs and organizations engaged in these endeavors within our portfolio.

In research published this year, Pathways to Education argues for going beyond the traditional one-to-one, youth/adult mentorship to draw on a broader set of relationships and community resources. This echoes something discussed at a mentorship panel I organized and moderated several years ago at Bentley University. One of our speakers talked about building a personal board of directors—a set of mentors one accumulates, to whom one can reach out throughout the years for guidance in the areas in which they can best provide insight. 

What can we do to spread the riches of mentorship beyond the barriers set up by wealth disparity? How can we engage in mentorship in a systemic approach to fight relationship poverty and help break the cycle of inequality in education, social capital, income and health outcomes? What will that mean to replacing anger, fear and desperation with passion, confidence and hope?

Imagine what we could accomplish then.

Saturday, August 5, 2017


I delivered this d'var Torah ("word of Torah," or sermon) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on Saturday, August 5, 2017.


My father, Bernard Wolfman
Next Shabbat will be my father’s yahrzeit, and each year I like to honor his memory by delivering a d’var Torah around this time.

Va-etḥannan seems like an appropriate parashah for recalling my father. I won’t suggest that he was a modern-day Moses, but my father was called teacher by many. His role as an educator—professionally and as a parent—was a tremendous source of satisfaction for him and a great benefit to all of us on the receiving end. Just as Moses is facing the end of his life by recounting to the Israelites the substance and meaning of the exceptional journey they have lived together and its implications for their future, as my father neared the end of his life he reflected on our family. There was one remarkable night when I sat by him and he narrated to me the emotional histories of each of his children, clarifying for me how closely he had paid attention throughout our lives and bequeathing to me his insights and the opportunity to build from them even in his absence.

One legacy my father left with all of us was his uncompromising commitment to social justice. This quite simply was woven into our family story—not only in what he told us, but in what we saw every day in how he lived and worked. Social justice also runs through the fabric of Moses’s narrative in Va-etḥannan.

From the opening, Moses essentially is saying “I won’t be there with you, much as I want and pleaded. So hear me because my words, and all we have seen together, are all I can give you; and what you take from them are what you can take with you.”

After recounting that he had not been worthy to live to enter the land, he nonetheless is prepared to provide the instructions that—if followed—will ensure the Israelites are worthy to do so. His personal story is instructive. As Moshe Rabbeinu, he teaches even through his frailties by demonstrating what not to do. And then he declares that this responsibility to serve as a model for others extends to all of Israel. “Observe them faithfully,” he says of the laws, “for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples.” (ch 4:vs 6) 

This brings to mind the Aleinu, which says first that we bow down and then—from our example—that all the world’s inhabitants will know to do so.

Just after this, (ch 4:vs8), the theme of social justice is emerging.  “What great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?” Moses asks. But the notes in Etz Hayyim point out that the Hebrew says tzadekim, which better translates as “just” than “perfect.” So the message really is that the laws and teaching are uniquely just.

Interwoven with this is a theme of seeing, hearing and remembering. There is great emphasis on truly seeing and hearing, so one can learn, so these just laws are seared into memory and guide how one functions in the world—and into future generations. “Do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes…so that they do not fade from your mind,” he exhorts, adding, “And make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” He recalls that God said to him at Mount Horeb, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn…and may so teach their children.”

Moses goes on to exquisitely evoke revelation as a mystically visual and concretely hearing experience. “The mountain was ablaze with flames.” “[Y]ou heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.”

Continuing with the themes of seeing and hearing, the injunction against sculptured images of God characterizes idols as precisely the opposite of God’s appearance at Mount Horeb—they are concrete to see, and nothing to hear.  And they themselves “cannot see or hear or eat or smell.” (ch.4: vs.35-37) He goes on, “It has clearly been demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside him. From the heavens He let you hear His voice to discipline you; on earth he let you see His great fire; and from amidst that fire you heard His words. And because he loved your fathers, He chose their heirs after them….” Again: hearing, seeing, and passing to future generations.

After this extraordinary justification for following the laws, and before giving them, we have a seemingly incongruous moment of social justice: (ch.4: vs.41-43) “Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan to which a manslayer could escape, one who unwittingly slew a fellow man without having been hostile to him in the past; he could flee to one of these cities and live.” This comes from the narrative voice, not Moses’s, and the reason for its appearance here is a little unclear. Maybe it’s a bit of unfinished business, and Moses worries that – once he delivers the laws—it will be time for him to die. So perhaps he believes that this is his last chance to create this protection for those who may accidentally commit manslaughter in the chaos that could ensue as they enter and battle for the land.

Whatever the reason for it to appear here, I find it compelling that the theme of social justice enters so strongly, just as we are about to enter the Decalogue. The ten commandments, as we know, move from laws about our relationship with God to those about our relationship with each other. We might therefore expect that social justice would enter into those later commandments. But in fact they start earlier.

The laws that address our relationship with God are punctuated with exhortations for social justice among people. “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God; for the Lord will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.”—this may dictate how we invoke God, but it also forbids us from sworn false accusations against each other. And the requirement to observe Shabbat also addresses treatment of slaves, equality between men and women, and fair treatment of animals. Embedded in our relationship with God is an expectation of social justice.

Once we exit the Decalogue, the focus on hearing and seeing returns, again with the visual on the mystical and even overwhelmingly frightening end of the spectrum, with “the mountain…ablaze with fire,” and the aural at the firmly human end, with Moses as the intermediary through which the Israelites will hear “the laws and the rules.” Hearing, as a theme, reaches its apex with the words of the shema (ch6:vs4), succinctly charting the path from hearing to conviction to behavior and to teaching future generations. “Shema Yisrael Adonai elohenu, Adonau ehad…” “Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai alone. You shall love Adonai with all our heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”

Now, it gets complicated.

As we enter and take possession of the land and its many assets, we must do so with the humility of recognizing that we developed none of them. Such humility can be a key element of effectively pursuing social justice. We must “take heed that [we] do not forget the Lord who freed [us] from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” a reminder that often is coupled with specific social justice obligations, such as our responsibilities to strangers. And we are to “do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord,” another line that might lead us to a mindset of righteousness.

But instead, we are told to destroy the nations in the land without mercy, and that we must do so because we are God’s “treasured people”—chosen, despite being a small band, on the strength of an oath God made to our ancestors.

As I said, it’s complicated.

But today I’m taking from this parashah the elements that foster clarity. Truly hearing in a manner that brings understanding. The majesty of what we see in the world and how it manifests our experience of God, or spirituality, or mysticism—however we define it. The imperative of social justice for living in community. And the urgency of teaching the next generation. Moses shows us all, and my father certainly demonstrated to me, that these are brought into particularly sharp focus when we close in on the end of life.

I wish for all of us—wherever we are in the course of our lives— that we hear, that we see, that we learn, that we teach, that we foster social justice in all we do, and that we help ensure the same for the generations that follow us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Our Seder

Among those at this table on Monday night, only my husband and I were not immigrants. We trace ourselves to immigrants—in my case, recently enough that I knew some of those who immigrated—but Brad and I alone, at our Seder table, were born in the US. 

We all deeply appreciated learning of many cultural traditions related to Passover, sharing hopes for the future and hearing moving personal stories about the importance of the freedom that this festival represents. Among us were those born Jewish, converted, in the process of conversion, and Christian from a majority Muslim country. 

It was a beautiful evening, so we had the windows and the front door open. Anyone passing by could have seen and heard what was happening in our dining room. How fortunate we all are to live in a place and time where that brought no fear. But as things are progressing, how long will those we hosted be able to throw windows and doors open with such ease?

One of our guests relayed that, in her country’s Jewish community, the Seder involves not merely telling the story but reenacting it. They roast a lamb and burn the carcass; they place the blood on their doorposts; and at midnight they flee into their homes to escape the Angel of Death. Perhaps the White House Seder could follow this tradition; maybe that would help to make more palpable and horrifying the fear among those we increasingly persecute in our nation—and drive home a realization that, in time, the Reaper comes for the persecutors.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Toward A More Just World

I delivered this as the d'var Torah (sermon or, literally, word of Torah) at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham, MA on February, 25, 2017. The Torah portion (parashah) was Mishpatim (laws), Exodus 21:1-24:18.

In this turning point of a parashah, we move from what has been rich storytelling to what now is straightforward legislation. And we go from the iconic Decalogue in Yitro directly into the particulars of the laws of slave ownership in Mishpatim. It’s not an especially enjoyable transition, and a lot of the laws set out here don’t sit well with a contemporary audience.

So let’s do two things. First, I am going to succumb to the urge to cherry-pick a few of the laws that resonate for me. Then, I will return to the challenge of the discomfort that this parashah imposes. 

What resonates for me has a lot to do with what has been emanating from the White House for the last five weeks. Exodus 21:12-13 determines the fate of a person who commits manslaughter. Because the killing is unplanned, the culprit is provided “a place to which he can flee” or, as the notes in the Etz Hayyim humash explain, what are described elsewhere in the Torah as “cities of refuge.” Right now, our federal government seeks to deny sanctuary for refugees regardless of what they may be fleeing. It wants to shut down sanctuary cities to undocumented immigrants regardless of their contributions to our society.   Yet the bible establishes and dictates sanctuary even for those who, under certain circumstances, have killed. Later in the parashah, in Chapter 22, verse 20, the text reminds us of our responsibility to care for outsiders: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our foundational experience of slavery and freedom must inform and, in fact, shape our choices, our decisions and our laws going forward.

This stance extends to all who are at risk, in the strongest of terms. “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan,” it says of these populations that exemplify vulnerability in biblical text. It continues, “If you do mistreat them,…my anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword….” Consider this against the backdrop of the White House announcement, three days ago, that it will rescind language ensuring Title IX protection for one of our society’s most vulnerable populations—transgender school children.

Protection of the outsider or the vulnerable goes beyond our individual responsibility to the role of the judiciary. In Chapter 23, verse 9, discussing the expectation of judges, we again hear, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Let’s also look at Chapter 21, verse 22. In the midst of the laws addressing the consequences of killing, the text takes up miscarriage caused by pushing a pregnant woman as collateral damage in a fight among men. The assailant will pay a fine, but nothing more; only if there is “other damage” will there be more stringent penalties: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” But such precious elements of humanity don’t ascribe to the unborn.

Nearly 45 years after Roe v. Wade, we face new attacks on a woman’s right to make her own health choices. The administration seeks to mold the US Supreme Court to mount that assault, all in the name of religious right-to-life fundamentalism. Yet our fundamental religious text tells us here that the fetus is not a person, and that its demise is not the taking of a life.

I also was struck by Chapter 23, verses 1 through 3. “You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute.”

Consider this warning against the tyranny of power and wealth, in contrast to an administration that binds itself to billionaire business interests; speaks of “alternative facts” as it converses fluently in untruth; and seeks to control public discourse through repression and selective exclusion of the free press, a financial stake in a major TV network, and the white supremacist media comfortably ensconced in the White House. Not that we should give undue preference to the meek, as it clearly states.  Rather, Mishpatim unequivocally tells us to deal in truth, in fact, and in influence-blind justice.

We also find in Mishpatim, Chapter 23, verse 10, a call for food justice encoded as law. “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it and what they leave let the wild beast eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.” Many of you know that Brad invests much of his time and horticultural expertise in community gardens, including those designated for stocking food pantries with fresh produce. Our daughter, Audrey Baker, has made her career in food justice. Just after the election in November, as the keynote speaker at the Syracuse Food Justice Symposium, she said, “government Farm to School funding only became a reality once the Obama administration took office. Under the new regime, this funding is most likely going to disappear. And yet we must remain resilient. We must continue to build and bolster community food systems. And we must continue to have a strong, loud voice in policy and politics, including at the district, municipal, and state levels.”

As promised, I cherry-picked the laws in Mishpatim that fit my preferred narrative.  But how do I address the problem of the parashah as a whole, as it legislates a world that, by virtue of regulating them, condones slavery, women as property, and capital punishment. It offers us the law of resting on Shabbat; the feasts of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; the separation of meat and milk; and then slips comfortably into a policy of terrorizing our enemies through plague, and displacing peoples to take their land. This is not a world I particularly like.

But perhaps it is better than the world it seeks to improve upon. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, asking why God didn’t just abolish slavery entirely in Mishpatim after leading us out from 400 years under its yoke, answers it this way:

Freedom is difficult. We each seek it for ourselves, but we deny it to others when their freedom conflicts with ours. So deeply is this true that within three generations of Abraham’s children, Joseph’s brothers were willing to sell him into slavery: a tragedy that did not end until Judah was prepared to forfeit his own freedom that his brother Benjamin could go free.  

It took the collective experience of the Israelites, their deep, intimate, personal, backbreaking, bitter experience of slavery – a memory they were commanded never to forget – to turn them into a people who would no longer turn their brothers and sisters into slaves, a people capable of constructing a free society, the hardest of all achievements in the human realm.

And then Rabbi Sacks turns to economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Susstein, authors of Nudge, a book I read a couple of years ago for its application to marketing strategy. Citing Thaler’s and Susstein’s findings, Rabbi Sacks says that “freedom depends on not over-legislating. It means creating space within which people have the right to choose for themselves. On the other hand, we know that people will not always make the right choices. The old model on which classical economics was based, that left to themselves people will make rational choices, turns out not to be true.”

So we need to use indirect influence; we must nudge. “That is exactly what G‑d does in the case of slavery,” says Rabbi Sacks. “He does not abolish it, but He so circumscribes it that He sets in motion a process that will foreseeably, even if only after many centuries, lead people to abandon it of their own accord.”

With this lens on Mishpatim, maybe I can find in its challenges some hope. I harbor deep fears about our country’s administration; about the mix of division, apathy, complacency and dismissiveness that earned us this administration; and about the dangers to populations, ecologies, and democracy that it threatens.

But I know that over the passage of history civilization grows and matures, and we make inroads toward compassion and progress toward justice, despite sometimes treacherous detours.

I believe that we are on one of those detours now. Mishpatim offers several strong arguments against some of the specific minefields along this dark road, as well as a hint of promise that through a combination of memory and forward momentum we can steer ourselves back on course.

We cannot, however, find that path by succumbing to our own version of suppressing and oppressing the vulnerable. To a large degree, those of us who never could imagine the political ascension of Donald Trump, and now decry his presidency, brought this about by picking and choosing the vulnerable populations we would acknowledge. Is it acceptable to diminish vulnerability because it does not fit the definition that has traditionally lit a fire under us? Those whom we overlooked, as they felt the secure world they had known slipping away, looked elsewhere for their refuge.

So now, when we accuse and mock Trump, the individuals who found acknowledgement from him take it as mockery and condemnation of themselves. Yet, in Mishpatim it is clear: we are not to mistreat the vulnerable. We engage in the rhetoric of “us” and “them” because, let’s be honest, simple black-and-white makes it easier to be in the right. But by asking us to side by default neither with the mighty nor the poor, our parashah insists that it’s all really about the harder-to-navigate gray areas where our interests meet, overlap and diverge.

If there is anything this set of legislation tells us, it is to take personal responsibility. There is nothing easy in maintaining a course toward a more just world, but it rests on all of us to do so. Mishpatim reminds us to never rest from carrying out that hard and sometimes convoluted work. The past five weeks has made it clear to me that, when we become complacent, we suffer for it.

Shabbat Shalom.