Mishpatim 5778 – Nudging and Nagging: What to Make of all these Mishpatim?

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

There are many important items that we could discuss in today’s parashah, which is packed with laws. Today, I wish to discuss some overriding themes and some very specific laws or sets of laws, and how they apply today.

I have heard it said by non-Jews that Judaism in a religion of laws and rules, and that it is a very “dry” religion. this is a mischaracterization of our faith. A mischaracterization! As you will see, the laws we read today have been crafted to create people and communities that are sensitive to the weak and the disenfranchised. The Jewish vision of justice is based not on abstract principles or beliefs, but on the concrete memories of the Jewish people. We are called upon to teach justice by first putting it into action in our own lives.

First, please note that the parashah begins with a vov – “and,” as in, “And these are the laws you (Moses) shall set before them (the people.)” There is thus made a connection between the “Big 10” from last week and the commandments we read about today. One group is thus no more important than the other. All of these additional laws were revealed at the same time and would seem to be equally binding. Now on to the principles.

One principle is that of the “nudge.” The parashah actually begins with rules regarding slaves. With so many restrictions imposed on slave ownership, this, I believe, is a “nudge” against slavery itself. Sometimes, Gd doesn’t command us directly in a particular direction. Sometimes, it’s just a nudge. Maybe an outright ban on slavery would have been too radical a change for the nascent Israelite Nation, and so a gentle nudge was more appropriate. As we all know, it took many years before slavery was finally made illegal. And of course, our country fought a great war over the issue, but we eventually got there.

And actually, I wonder if the same sort of nudge is at work with respect to the laws of kashrut. I gave a talk a couple of months ago to the Jain Society of North Texas, and was asked if, because of our philosophy against killing, Jews were vegetarians. I responded that in my opinion, our Bible has set up a grand bargain, or compromise. We are told that we can eat meat, but the rules to which we are held are very restrictive. I actually wonder whether we will eventually outlaw all killing of animals – even for food. Seems to me a similar dynamic might be at play, taking place over centuries, between the eventual outlawing of slavery and the eventual outlawing of killing animals for food. Anyway, so this is one principle – the nudge – and one specific law or set of laws.

As an aside, the adherence to these rules serve as constant reminders of my particular identity and of my particular place in the world. As you know, Nancy and I returned from a trip to far-away Patagonia  a couple of weeks ago. Though the food on the trip was generally quite good, I had constant issues – eating no nonkosher beef, veal, shellfish, etc. I was often left with very limited choices. A couple of times, I was asked about the rules of kashrut. I should be clear that I do not keep strictly kosher, but the restrictions that I adhere to caused me to stand out a lot among this group of a couple dozen people, who ate together for 10 days. What is the basis for these rules, I was asked on one occasion. Cleanliness? No – I adhere to them as I do because they are written in our Bible. For me, it’s a way to maintain a distinction and an identity.

So that’s one principle and specific set of rules – the nudge and the laws of kashrut.

The second principle is the very exacting nature of the laws as they are written. Today we transition from the grand canvas of the Ten Commandments to the granularity of Judaism. We find that Gd is in the details. I would argue that as much as the “Big 10,” these additional scores of laws define us as Jews. This is where the rubber meets the road. So the big picture of last week leads to the details of this week. Let’s say, for instance, that just last week, Alan’s goat was gored my Mona’s ox. The goat, it seems, strolled across their border and actually had been on Mona’s property. So who is at fault? Talmudic scholars have spent countless hours deliberating over just this sort of detail. And note that the relative wealth of Alan and Mona doesn’t matter at all when it comes to the application of these laws. One law applies to all.

Even though many of the laws are subject to interpretation, they are very specific and generally lead to a more compassionate world. In Chapter 22:24, we find an example of a law that is applied to great social benefit today. We are told that if money is loaned to the poor – to “My people,” no interest should be charged. Now it isn’t clear to me that this law applies to Jews exclusively, since it refers to the, “poor among you,” but still, this verse formed the basis for the establishment of Hebrew Free Loan Associations.

Most of these organizations were formed in the early part of the last century, before there was a series of social safety nets. I’m proud to be a member of the Board of Directors of the DHFLA, which was formed in 1935. It has served as a lifeline to those facing eviction, hunger, illness, and other financial challenges. I would be happy to discuss our association with you over kiddush. So here is a very clear and specific rule that applies to all. It is not arcane and it is not difficult to carry out.

Note that as part of this second principle of particularity we have our third principle: “Mishpat Echod” – one set of laws. As I mentioned, there is no distinction between rich and poor. No one is above the law. In fact, the laws are here to be learned by all. They are all laid out before us – not spoken in some code, to be hidden away. So we have one set of very particular laws. Details!

Yet another principle – the fourth that I would like to touch on – is that although they were handed down at Sinai, we read that the rules written in today’s parashah applied to all who were there, yes, but also to all who were not there. They are timeless. As you know, there is a midrash that we were all at Sinai – all Jews then and all whose unborn souls were to become Jews later – us. In fact, I’m sure I met Larry there – And I remembered him because he was wearing a Chicago Cubs cap instead of a kippah even then! Who could have known then that both of us (I’m a Red Sox fan) would suffer for many decades, but that we would both ultimately be redeemed?

A verse I want to discuss that reflects this absolute timelessness of the laws is Ch. 23:9. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feeling of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Unchanged over the centuries and equally applicable to all of us today. This verse summarizes the social vision of the Torah, seeking to impart a sensitivity on all of us.

We are being nagged about this! This reminder is repeated 36 times in the Torah. We are commanded to show special sensitivity, since we can identify with the powerless. This is a timeless command that we reenact each year at Passover. And it is repeated over and over in our daily liturgy today, many centuries after the laws were handed down.

First we were nudged; now we’re being nagged! We still read about our experience in Egypt, with the admonition to be compassionate towards the poor and the powerless, because we continue to identify with their fate. So the nagging features of the laws constitute this fifth principle.

So Mishpatim sets the course – the rules laid out in today’s parashah brings the vision of a compassionate world to earth in concrete terms, and  according to the principles that I discussed today:

  • the nudge;
  • Gd existing in the fine details of life;
  • the fact that the laws apply to all of us equally – mishpat echod;
  • the timeless applicability of the laws and
  • the importance of some laws as reflected by their repetition.

These laws and admonitions are designed to make us more compassionate and sensitive to the needs of others.

And the details in today’s parashah bring the law, the vision for a better and more compassionate society here to earth, where we need it most.

Shabbat Shalom