Mishpatim 5781 – They are Us – We are Them

By: Michael Carr

I am fortunate to give this D’var since it is usually delivered by Joel who is on the Dallas Hebrew Free Loan Association board or Iris a former president of the Dallas Hebrew Free Loan Association. If there is time following the D’var -would Joel or Iris say a few words following the D’var about DHFLA?

How is a moral and just society built?  One can look to the commandments/laws outlined in this week’s parasha – Mishpatim.

Last week we received the 10 Commandments – this week we receive an additional 53 ‘Covenant Collection Laws’. Like the laws of lending money – there are many laws of course though let’s focus on lending.

In fact – Exodus 22:24 states:  ‘If (or really WHEN) one lends money to my people, to the poor among you,  do not act as a creditor and do not charge them interest.’

How many times have ‘WE’ been able to borrow money without interest to purchase a car, property or say  education?

Essentially, law and guidance from Torah about lending to THOSE IN NEED is that the loan is not to benefit the lender by receiving interest on the outstanding loan. The loan should benefit the indigent – the person in need.

However, what about when we or someone we know is in a compromised position (like no job or furloughed, lack of savings, living paycheck to paycheck).  How did that situation feel to you or to them? What action did this cause us to take or did it? Can any of us imagine what it would be like to not have a source of income and live under alternate circumstances?   If not, try volunteering at the Jewish Family Service Food Pantry or, The Bridge or other transition/homeless shelter. It is an experience that will raise your consciousness about this cause and surely will humble your soul.

Let’s be clear here -G-d did not say – hey – ignore the crying baby or throw obstacles in the way of the disabled/blind. Nope-it was more about showing compassion for those who do not have the resources to support a balanced life.

A person in financial need really can be anyone among us.  In fact it’s not about ‘THEM’ (the POOR) and ‘us’ because as the Torah points out we are us and we were made in “b’tzelem elokim” – the image of G-d.

So why might someone put ‘blinders on’ or ignore or disregard someone who is seeking help?

Essentially, we as Jews are to recognize those less fortunate than ourselves because we were once an oppressed and poor people.   People who need help are not separate from us – THEY ARE US.  For another real example – visit Parkland Hospital and speak with the medical personnel who work in the mental health extended observation unit or visit the County jail and tour the floors in the jail that literally ‘house-provide shelter’ for mentally ill individuals unable to post bond and essentially have no-where to go and usually no one that will have them except the Texas State Hospitals IF beds are available and IF these individuals ‘qualify’ for a bed.

Again- WE are not ‘better’ than the oppressed and poor because we were once oppressed and poor.  In fact this is pointed out twice in Mishpatim.  G-d wants us to REMEMBER WHERE WE CAME FROM.

In My Jewish Learning, Rabbi Jill Jacobs points out that those of us who do not live in dire poverty often protect ourselves from any sense of vulnerability by finding ways to differentiate ourselves from the poor: ‘THEY’ must be poor because ‘THEY’ don’t work hard, because ‘THEY’ drink or self medicate or take drugs to cope with ‘THEIR’ illness, or because ‘THEY’ come from dysfunctional families, or because ‘THEY’ live paycheck to paycheck and so forth. Seeing each poor person as our sibling cuts through any attempts to separate ourselves from him or her

Rabbi Jacobs also points out that like the concept of Achikha (or brotherhood), this demand forces us to see each poor person as an individual human being worthy of dignity and respect. Rather than the view of a poor person as an anonymous and undeserving vulnerable individual, we are asked to regard this person as a child of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Like us, this person, though imperfect, is deserving of what talmudic Rabbis call z’chut avot (the merit of the ancestors), the ancestral connection that guarantees God’s mercy.

Further – Rabbi Jacobs points out that perhaps we should consider the care of the poor as a means of building a stronger community as a whole. In the most utilitarian formulation of this idea, perhaps contributing to the education of the poor to help guarantee a better educated and therefore more productive society; that perhaps helping the poor to buy property increases the number of homeowners in a given place and therefore may raise the value of all housing stock; or that job training and small business loans for those who are less fortunate might increase the economic viability of an entire community.  By the way – some of these ideas have been funded by the Hebrew Free Loan Association.

Look I’m not saying we need to sacrifice everything for those in ‘dire straights’.  There are examples of people who have found themselves in less fortunate circumstances and have had or found the resources to come out better than they were – like people with Dyslexia such as Danny Glover, Nolan Ryan, Alyssa Milano, Pete Rose. Or those who have dropped out of school to take care of family before getting on solid ground like Benjamin Franklin (dropped out of school at age 10) or Jim Carey who dropped out of school at age 15 and lived in a car with his dad – an unemployed musician.

Back to our D’var and the idea of charging no interest to the poor. This also speaks to the larger idea of what one might refer to as the ‘Community of Humanity’ that we all are a part of – so ‘taking care of people in need’ is something everyone can do.  Examples of how we can make a difference to those in need might be like donating to the Dallas Hebrew Free Loan Association, or giving our time to Meals on Wheels through the Jewish Family Service when Melissa Steiner asks if anyone is available to fill in or if we get a call from the Jewish Federation to contribute our time or money or both for causes that are within or outside of our Jewish Community.

The Torah explains that helping others is a requirement – a necessary Mitzvot .  Let us all remember Exodus 23:9 (often annually on Passover if not daily) G-d stated:  “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger [literally, “you know the soul of a stranger”], because you were strangers in Egypt.” 

We all should practice living in a compassionate world – the one God provided when he gave us Torah.