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.
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.