Archive for Mishpatim

Mishpatim: A Nation of Laws

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Mishpatim 
You shall not tolerate a sorceress . . . . . (Shemot/ Exodus 22:17)
Good afternoon! 
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, literally means “laws” and has many commandments related to civil, family and criminal law, along with a stunning story of communal revelation at the end. The idea of religious law- or any law for that matter- is sometimes disparaged and set against spirit, or morality, or freedom, but I think Judaism would say that it is a well-ordered and just society that allows for individual morality, spirituality and creativity to flourish. Without fair laws, we are subject to individual and group passions and prejudices, the defects of which hardly needs elucidating. 
For example, the verse above is translated a little too nicely by the Jewish Publication Society as quoted. It is literally, “a sorceress shall not live.” Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that the Torah and the ancient leaders who held to it absolutely opposed anything connected to other deities, magical powers, or the occult, and it is hardly surprising that such practitioners were condemned. 
What is more surprising is our tradition’s insistence on due process for those it found most abhorrent. To wit, Rashi says that our verse teaches that witchcraft is a capital crime, but only if there is a proper beit din, or court proceeding. Now, in no way am I endorsing the death penalty for witchcraft (or anything else in America today) but I think we can learn from this our tradition’s moral commitment to avoid the injustice of the mob. Again, witches were one of the things the Torah hated most- but there is still no possibility in a Jewish view of justice for people to take the law in their own hands, since it is precisely a duly constituted court that can consider evidence and cool the passions of violent anger and hatred. 
At this point, I can guess that the objection would be: well, courts didn’t protect anybody during the Salem witch trials, or countless trials and inquisitions, did they? True enough, but the laws of evidence, testimony and conviction in Jewish jurisprudence would rule out most hearsay, rumor or rush to judgment. That’s the whole point: a nation of laws slows down the passions of the mob so that justice is not tainted by prejudice, fear, bigotry or politics. No system is perfect, but when I read in the Torah commentaries that even witches got their day in court, I am powerfully reminded that the Jewish ideal is to hold up reason in the place of fury. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that the verse above should be upheld literally, but only that its interpretation teaches us a powerful Jewish value: that those calling for blood and vengeance rarely have justice as their motive and never have justice as their result. Every person, created in God’s image, is entitled to the equal protection of a nation of laws, and it’s every person’s responsibility move society closer to that ideal. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Mishpatim: The Power of Life and Death

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not side with the mighty to do wrong. . . . . .   (Shemot/ Exodus 23:2)

Good afternoon!

The Torah portion Mishpatim is mostly civil and criminal laws, along with instructions about how to apply those laws. Some of the laws and instructions are oriented toward ordinary citizens, while some, like the first verses of Chapter 23, seem to be for the regulation of judges and officials. The context of verse 2, quoted in part above, seems to be fairness in judging, forbidding the judge or official from taking the side of either rich (because of influence) or poor (because of sympathy) in a dispute. Rather, according to what seems to be plain meaning of the text, the law must be applied fairly, without regard to the social standing of either plaintiff or defendant.

So far, so good, and would that we lived in a society that truly applied its laws fairly, as is, I believe, our American ideal. On the other hand, there’s an interesting interpretation of the verse above that gets into the details of the ancient Jewish judiciary, which I think will in turn impart an important moral challenge. According to some interpretations, “don’t side with the mighty” really means “don’t side with the majority,” meaning in turn, that a judge on a panel of judges must speak up, even against the majority opinion. Sforno goes on to say that “don’t follow the majority to do wrong” means don’t be the tie-breaking vote in a capital punishment case, because if a criminal is condemned by a one-vote majority, it’s the same as being condemned by a single judge, which is not part of the ancient Jewish judicial system.

This strikes me as a profound recognition of the humbling and awesome power of life and death inherent in judicial, political and military systems, a power which cannot be held by a vote of just one, lest that one judge be misguided, biased, or influenced by external factors. Many contrasts with modern life might be made, but one in particular that comes to mind is the current use of computer algorithms to determine drone strikes in the war against terror groups. These “signature strikes” are often determined by computer analysis of certain behaviors, which indicate a possibility of terrorist affiliation. Note, however, with some of these drone strikes, we have no idea who we are killing, or if they have any terrorist links at all, or how many civilians are killed along with any possible enemies.

Counter-terrorism policy will be debated by experts, but I hope all Americans engage the moral questions inherent in the actions done in our name. The deliberation and clarity needed to condemn a criminal in the days of the ancient rabbis stands in stark contrast to a world in which computer programs mete out life and death in a flash, on the other side of the world, blowing up people whose names we may never know. “Do not follow the majority” became “do not let a bare majority decide to kill;” I wonder what the sages would say about letting software make life-or-death decisions without much human input at all? Arguments can be made pro or con, but the question cannot be avoided.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Mishpatim: Learning the Ways of Kindness

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”  (Shemot/ Exodus 23:5)

Shalom to one and all!

I have been out on family leave due to the arrival of new baby Goldschmidt (name to be announced soon) in early December. I’m glad to be back now with a little tidbit of Torah commentary for this week’s portion, Mishpatim, which by its very name suggests that the major theme is laws for a just society. (Mishpat is a just law; a shofet is a judge, same root.)

Yet the verse above is hard to justify in terms of setting out the rules for a fair society- why should I care if somebody else’s animal is struggling? Do I really have a positive duty to help anybody with this sort of problem? There might be no end to it!

That makes sense from the perspective of American law, which is often concerned with rights and liberty (but not enough, I’d say). Jewish law, on the other hands, is often more concerned with our obligations towards others than our right to be left alone, and in this case, the law is very specifically aimed at improving the moral character of those who would obey it. Note that the law specifies seeing the animal of your “enemy,” and yet you must help him. (We might also note that you’re helping the animal be more comfortable too, and surely the donkey doesn’t have a share in your conflict with its owner!)

Sefer HaHinnuch, the medieval textbook of the commandments, suggests that the reason for the law is to “train our souls in the way of kindness.” This is very profound: we might not ever decide, without the nudging of a mitzvah, to help another on the street (even more so someone we don’t like) but doing the action changes us from within. It isn’t always kindness that brings about the action- it is the action that brings about kindness, for when we see even our enemy as another person, struggling with their animals and work and responsibilities and hassles just as we do, how can we fail to soften our souls and become more compassionate? Yet we would never see them in their full humanity without the intimate encounter of rendering assistance. By pushing us to interact with people right where they are, we learn to be people of mercy, for we may see even our enemy as a full human being, created in the Divine Image, and as deserving of love as ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mishpatim: Helping One’s Enemy

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.”(Shmot/ Exodus 23:4-5)

Good afternoon!

Last week, we discussed the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents, and concluded with the proposition that emotions follow actions. That is, in the case of honoring parents, for example, our emotions of gratitude for life often follow the specific actions that Judaism sets out as ways to fulfill the mitzvah. This week, we see an even clearer example of this idea, in the verses above.

The rabbis note that the phrase translated as “take it back to him” in the first verse involves the doubling of the verb “to return.” This is characteristic of Biblical Hebrew, and merely implies emphasis, but the ancient sages interpret the repetition to teach that even if one found an enemy’s animal far away, or even if it was injured, you still had to take it back to him.

Why go to such trouble to help somebody you don’t even like, or who may have done you real harm in the past? Because emotions follow actions- by helping your enemy, you may learn to feel compassion for him. Perhaps in the course of exerting oneself to reloading or returning the animal, one would find the grudge or negativity becoming irrelevant as the bonds of common humanity were reasserted.  Alternatively, doing something nice for somebody may cause the recipient’s heart to turn, opening up a window for reconciliation.

I mentioned Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler last week but let’s offer a bit more of his thought on the topic of giving and caring:

“If one were only to reflect that a person comes to love the one to
whom he gives, he would realise that the only reason the other person
seems a stranger to him is because he has not yet given to him; he has
not yet taken the trouble to show him friendly concern. If I give to
someone, I feel close to him; I have a share in his being. It follows
that if I were to start bestowing good upon everyone with whom I come
into contact, I would soon feel that they are all my relatives, all my
loved ones. I now have a share in them all; my being has extended into
all of them.”                                                                       (from the collection Strive for Truth, vol I, p. 130.)

Rabbi Dessler proposes that we give first and the love comes after, because a piece of our own being has flowed towards the other. We return the donkey but perhaps gain a human connection, even where there was enmity. This is why actions grounded inhesed, loving-kindness, are mitzvot, commandments and not reliant on the right feelings to be there first. If we waited till we felt like helping our enemy, it might never happen, but if we help without waiting, perhaps we will find there are fewer foes in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mishpatim: The Curse of Cursing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people. (Shmot/Exodus 22:27)

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, gets its name from the Hebrew root related to judges and the judicial system; a mishpat is a just law, and a shofet is a judge. Hence, the portion is mostly laws pertaining to a fair and good society, dealing with everything from civil cases to criminal law to ritual to the judicial system itself. The law quoted above seems straightforward: one must not curse either God or a human judge or other civil authority.

Yet the ancient rabbis ask a basic question: what difference does it make if one curses the judge or local official? If one is a litigant, it won’t change the outcome of the court case, and if one is a citizen, cursing the mayor doesn’t mean you don’t have to obey the laws of the town. So the rabbis have various understandings of the moral basis of this prohibition: some say it’s to preserve the honor and feelings of the judge- who is, after all, a human being with human emotions. Some say the prohibition on cursing judges is given to preserve respect for the system as a whole, for if we didn’t have laws and people to interpret them, society would fall apart very quickly.

A third interpretation holds that the harm is not to the judge but to the one who curses, who becomes coarse and undignified through the expression of unchecked anger, while a fourth reading takes into account not so much the immediate hurt feelings of the judge or official but the long-term effect on society. According to this view, if litigants and citizens are always cursing and insulting judges or elected officials, people in positions of authority may decide it’s just too much trouble and pain to serve in such positions, and then worse people will take their places. This could happen even if a given official doesn’t hear a given insult, but merely hears of all the gossip and slander going around about others or public servants in general.

Clearly, these interpretations are not mutual exclusive, but they all point to a keen understanding of human nature: people tend to resent those with whom they disagree, and resentment can quickly turn into gossip, insult, slander, and humiliating speech. Please note: the ancient rabbis are not saying one should not disagree with elders or authorities; studying any page of Talmud quickly reveals a culture of vigorous debate and vociferous disagreement about important issues of the day. Rather, the rabbis are pointing the way towards an ethic of disagreement grounded in respect for the humanity of those who serve in positions of authority, as long as the system itself is legitimate and power is not abused.

A true story: last night I received a long and thoughtful email from a member of Temple Beth-El in which the writer respectfully but quite strongly disagreed with something I’d written. This email directly quoted my article, pointed out alternative understandings of the situation, and made suggestions for future action which would look quite different from what I’d proposed. I must confess that my immediate reaction to disagreement with my suggestions is often an immature negativity towards the speaker; but once that passed (in this case, within a minute or so), I was actually felt quite honored that someone had read my proposal closely enough to disagree with it so carefully and logically!

Times are hard, and anger is easy to come by. Radio, cable TV and the internet constantly propagate delegitimizing invective in all directions, and when budgets are shrinking and everybody must sacrifice, resentment is a natural human emotion. That’s where Torah steps in and says: stop and think about the effects of speech. Stop and think about the immediate and long-term effects of your actions, not only upon others but the effect on you, as a spiritual being. I believe human beings reach our full potential in community, and for community to thrive, each of us must commit to the spiritual disciple of thoughtful speech and channeling our anger.

That is the path of honoring the Divine Image in others and in ourselves, and lays the foundation for the just society that Torah asks us to imagine and build.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Shekalim: Reparing the House

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Mishpatim.

Shabbat Shekalim.

The Torah portion Mishpatim is concerned with the laws of a fair and just society; we also have a special Shabbat, called Shekalim, which recalls the collection of money for the upkeep of the ancient Temple. More on Shabbat Shekalim here.

Good afternoon! Hope them’s that are digging out are dug out from the snowstorm, and if you’re not dug out, it’s a perfect time to learn a bit of Torah.

This week we read special passages, a concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah, for the occasion called Shabbat Shekalim, which recalls the collection of a half-shekel from each Israelite for the upkeep of the Temple. The announcement came a month or so before the tax was actually due, and that’s why we read these passages just before the Hebrew month of Adar.

The haftarah for Shekalim tells the story of King Yehoash, who came to the throne at a young age and then set up a system whereby the priests in the Temple would pay for the repair of the property out of a general donation fund. After a while, the king realized that the priests weren’t actually doing the repairs on the building as they should, so he ordered that the funds for the Temple and for the priests should be kept separate, so that they would not be tempted to keep more for their own sustenance and pay out less for the Temple maintenance. Yes, there is actually Biblical precedent for the idea of a synagogue Building Fund!

There’s another lesson here, related to our theme of prayer and what makes it happen (or not.) When the house of prayer is in disrepair- physically, financially, organizationally, or spiritually- somebody has to take the initiative to fix it. Synagogues don’t magically repair themselves, and those in charge may not see all the problems. In our Torah reading, every single Israelite gave a half-shekel for the ancient Temple, indicating that the responsibility for the house of prayer belonged to the entire community, not just the leadership class- which, as the haftarah points out, sometimes gets a little too comfortable with the status quo.

Shabbat Shekalim poses the question: who repairs the house of God? The answer is: while a few people may have specific duties, everybody has the responsibility, and no class of people is exempt from contributing. That, in turn, reminds us that our house of prayer is not truly built unless it is a house of prayer for all people, representing every part of our kehillah, or sacred community. When we collect spiritual gifts from every soul, our house is truly renewed.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mishpatim: Separating and Mindfulness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

It’s almost Super Bowl Sunday, and after that, Super
Tuesday, and yet before either of these events, oh my goodness do we
have a super Torah portion to study together. That parshah is
“Mishpatim,” which means “laws,” and for the most part, the portion is
concerned with laws for a just and fair society. There are, however, a
few laws concerning ritual and religious practice, including laws
about agricultural products:

“The choicest of the first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the
house of the Lord, your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s
milk.” (Shmot/Exodus 23:19)

Many who learn Torah even occasionally know that the traditional
separation of meat and milk products derives from “you shall not cook
a kid in its mother’s milk,” but it’s less well known that:

1) The first time this idea appears it seems to be connected to
agricultural thanksgiving in the Temple, and

2) “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” actually appears
three separate times in the Torah: as above, plus Shmot 34:26 and
D’varim/Deutoronomy 14:21.

Because “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” appears three times
in the Torah, the ancient rabbis assumed that each appearance of the
text taught something new and different from the other, similar
verses. Thus, we learn that not only are we not to eat milk and meat
together, but we are also not to cook milk and meat together, nor
derive any benefit from a mixture of milk and meat. To put it another
way, each time this idea appears it teaches something new: don’t eat
the cheeseburger, don’t cook the cheeseburger, and don’t profit from
the cheeseburger (and never mind the Pepsi or the chips.)

The actual practice of separating milk and meat is a skill learned and
applied over time, but for today, suffice it to say that milk and meat
foods are typically prepared and served on separate utensils, and a
waiting period is also observed between eating dairy and meat,
especially if the meat comes first. (That’s a longer discussion we’ll
have another time.)

OK, I can just feel many among the loyal readers of rabbineal-list
thinking “uh, WHY exactly does the Torah prohibit this? I mean, what’s
so bad about cheeseburgers?” (Especially if you get them from the
Olympia Cafe . . . )

Much has been written to answer this question, and below you’ll find
links to some good discussions of the classic interpretation.
Unfortunately, the Torah itself does not tell us why we should not
cook a kid in its mother’s milk, nor does the Torah itself offer the
understanding that this is a wider concept. Yet along with the typical
interpretations having to do with consciousness of our blessings, or
practicing holiness in our eating, or kindness to animals, I
personally see this traditional practice as connected to the ancient
Temple offerings- after all, both bringing “first fruits” and not
cooking the kid are taught in what became (in post-Biblical scriptural
enumeration) one verse.

To me, the idea of bringing “first fruits” and other offerings to the
ancient Temple was a ritual enactment of a basic spiritual
orientation: the world and its blessings do not belong to us, but
rather, we are tenants upon the land and thus when we take for
ourselves, we do so with humility and restraint. Bringing the
agricultural offerings was a practice of living humbly upon the Earth-
we are not to take and consume everything all the time, but rather we
should be ever more aware that our needs are less than our wants.

Separating milk and meat teaches the same truth: that we are not put
on this earth merely to consume, nor only for fleeting pleasures, but
to serve. A practice of restraint and mindfulness in our eating
teaches us to make other things more important- and they are!
Cheeseburgers are not a moral evil, but they’re also not the most
important thing in life, and Judaism says: if you can inculcate
awareness and self-limiting in your eating and other ways of
consuming, you can find within yourselves greater reservoirs of
gratitude and giving. Seen this way, the dietary disciplines of
Judaism are practical meditations: the way we eat reflects our values,
and orients our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Mishpatim: Justice Precedes Religion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

Whew! After the thunder and lightening of last week’s parsha, this week the
Torah settles
down a bit and gets into lots of details about how to have a just and holy
Thus, parshat Mishpatim has lots of particular laws- civil, criminal, family,
and so on, plus
a great story at the end about Moshe re-ascending the mountain with the leaders
of Israel.

Among the criminal laws in this week’s parsha is a straightforward decree of the
penalty for premeditated murder:

“But if a man plots deliberately against his friend to slay him with cunning,
[even] from My
altar you shall take him to die.” (Shmot/Exodus 21:14)

Now, for the moment, let’s NOT have a discussion of the death penalty in Jewish
suffice it to say that it’s part of Biblical justice in certain circumstances,
and the rabbis
who came along later greatly circumscribed its applicability. For today, let’s
just take it at
face value that the Torah is aiming for justice when it says that one who plots
out a
murder deserves the severest punishment.

OK, that’s straightforward enough, so why does the verse mention “even from My
altar you
shall take him?”

Rashi explains that this applies to a kohen [priest] who wanted to perform the
service in the Temple- even then, if he’s to be punished, neither his station
nor the need
for his religious duties will save him. What I take from this is the idea that
justice precedes
religion- that is, the honoring of human beings that we call justice is in some
more of a religious duty than the honoring of God that we call religion.

Again- we can debate later whether the death penalty is the fullest
manifestation of justice
in our day and age. Today, let’s consider the idea that a sacred text could
teach that
sometimes, religion as such isn’t the most pressing priority. In a day and age
when people
riot over slights to their religious sensibilities, or kill each other in the
name of spiritual
purity, I want to see justice, fairness, and equality under the law as religious
ideals in
themselves, ideals which can provide a corrective to any temptation to put the
honor of
God above the welfare of God’s human children.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- The first link leads to a page with a summary of the parsha and further
and the second takes you to a page with links to the text itself, plus even MORE

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Mishpatim: Heaven and Earth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

Shalom from snowy Swampscott! It’s a delight and a blessing to be back in
familiar quarters after two months of traveling, although it takes a bit of
adjustment to go from shirt sleeve in San Diego to snow banks in

It’s also a pleasure to be writing Torah thoughts in my office; there are
commentaries that I’ve been wishing to consult that are to find in an Internet
cafe (although cafe latte makes it a trade-off). One such commentary is that of
R. Ovadiah Sforno (Italy, 1500’s), which covers most of the Torah and often
brings a beautiful, spiritual perspective to the text. In this week’s parsha,
Sforno helps us understand what it might mean to have a “spiritual
experience,” a vision of the heavens, while living right here on earth.

First, a bit of background. Most of this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, deals
with laws: civil, criminal, financial, liability, religious, and so on. Then
asks the assembled Israelites to affirm the covenant, which they just received
at Sinai, and they accept it with joy. After all the people affirm the covenant,
Moshe takes his brother, his nephews, and 70 elders back up the mountain,
where they have a vision of the Divine Presence itself:

“Moshe and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Yisrael
ascended, and they perceived the Holy One of Yisrael, and beneath God’s
feet was like a brickwork of sapphire and like the appearance of the heavens
for purity.” (Shmot/ Exodus 24:9-10)

These verses aren’t so simple to understand: did Moshe and his companions
see God directly, or only what was “beneath God’s feet,” as it were? (My
assumption is that anthropomorphic imagery, like God having “feet,” is
metaphorical or symbolic, even in Biblical times.) Yet a little later on, in the
portion Ki Tisa, Moshe is told “no man may see Me and live,” and is allowed
only an obscured vision of the Divine Presence. (Shmot 33:20). So it’s not
clear what exactly these men saw or experienced, although it seems to have
been awesome and inspiring.

Various commentators discuss the meaning of the “brickwork of sapphire,”
and how the “appearance of the heavens” might be similar to other Biblical
images, but only Sforno (among the commentaries I consulted) understands
this experience as one of perceiving God as Creator. Sforno brings a verse
from the prophet Isaiah to connect the “brickwork of sapphire” to the Earth

“beneath God’s feet”. . .[This means]: on the earth, which is the lowest of all,
it says: “and the Earth is My footstool.” (This last quote is from Isaiah 66:1)

Sforno seems to be saying that the “brickwork of sapphire,” which was
beautiful and pure, was in fact the Earth itself, which was viewed as God’s
“footstool,” as it were. Earth is not separate from God, nor God from Earth, but
instead, a vision of God leads to perceiving the Earth as Divine and luminous,
as holy and beautiful. Spirituality, in this view, is not “heavenly” and distant
from earthly life, but is a matter of seeing the Earth as the heavens, as the
place from which we can discern the Divine Presence as close and real.

Taken this way, it’s quite a powerful model of spiritual awareness: spiritual
awe- depicted here as a vision of the Divine- brings forth a deep perception of
the kedusha, or holiness, of Earth itself. To imagine that “the Earth is God’s
footstool” is, for us, to imagine a kind of mutual sustaining, whereby Creator
and Creation are not the same thing, but impossible to imagine except in
relation to each other.

We cannot become aware of God without becoming aware of God’s Presence
in the natural world. Reverence for one is inseparable from reverence for the
other, because there is, in truth, no strict dividing line between Creator and
Creation. Moshe and his friends came down from the mountain seeing the
Earth as a holy jewel; isn’t it time we did the same?


PS: We’ll look at Rashi’s view of these verses Shabbat morning at Temple
Israel- consider yourself invited.

Also, for more on the scholar Sforno, see here:

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Mishpatim 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Mishpatim

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1-24:18)


The word mishpatim means “laws” or “ordinances,” and comes from a root which means judge or judgment. This parsha contains civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws- the Torah doesn’t seem to make the same distinctions that we do between civil and criminal, religious and secular legislation. Towards the end of the parsha, the holidays are reviewed, and God repeats the promise to bring the people to the land of Canaan. Moshe makes a sacrifice in front of the entire Israelite leadership, and they have a wondrous vision of God. Moshe goes back up the mountain, and stays there in a cloud to receive the law.


“You shall not revile God, nor curse a leader among your people. ” (Exodus 22:27- but counted as Exodus 22:28 in some Christian translations.)


Chapter 22 contains a mix of different kinds of laws, pertaining to everything from liability for damaging animals to sexual prohibitions to dietary laws. In context, perhaps this law, about cursing judges and leaders, is related to the other laws in that everybody accepts some restrictions on their freedom in order that society may function- without some common understanding of the customs of ownership, family life, sexuality, and so on, it might be hard to live together as a community. Similarly, if people do not accept some form of leadership, society would break down into anarchy, which is anathema to the culture of the Bible.


To many commentators, this is one integrated commandment, because they understand leadership as fulfilling the word of God. Thus, someone who curses the leader or the judge is implicitly rejecting the authority of God, Whose laws the leader is (at least theoretically) enacting.

However, the commandment not to curse a leader is by no means a commandment to accept flawed leaders without question- the Bible is full of positive examples of people criticizing their leaders. A gentle example comes from the previous parsha, when Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, gives him some constructive criticism about taking on too much, and then advises him to delegate many of his responsibilities. (Exodus 18)

A more forceful example of criticizing a communal leader is the prophet Natan’s famous rebuke of King David, after David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed on the battlefield so he could marry her. (2 Samuel 11-12) Nathan approaches the king directly, and even gets David to confess how wrong his deeds were- there was no question of letting David get away with corruption just because he was the king.

In fact, the historical and prophetic books of the Bible are just full of instances of leaders acting badly and then being denounced for it- so why does the Torah tell us not to curse a “leader among the people?” Perhaps there is a subtle but crucial difference between criticism and cursing. While some criticism is just useless griping, the kind of critique that the prophets offered was always in the hope that people could change and improve their behavior. Natan confronted David not to bring down his kingship, but so that he would confess and repent.

Contrast this with the passive anger towards the political system felt by so many people today. Voter turnouts are among the lowest ever in recent Canadian, American, and Israeli elections- people love to curse the leaders, but that’s not the same as getting involved for positive change. Maimonides notes that “cursing” is a form of anger, which he regards as a destructive emotion, at least when it’s not connected to constructive action.

Another interesting observation is made by the 14th century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati, who points out that cursing the leadership, even if it has no physical effect, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage people from taking positions of public service.* Exactly the same point has been made in countless Canadian and American newspaper editorials during the various public scandals of the past few years, especially when journalists and opposition parties engage in what some call the “politics of personal destruction.”

I believe that the Torah encourages- even demands- holding leadership accountable to the highest moral and legal standards. Nobody, not even King David, is above the law. Too often, however, we are content to curse the system without any involvement in it, which serves no one, and changes nothing. This whole section of the Torah conveys a very different message: a good society depends on the participation and moral responsibility of each individual. It’s easy to curse the leadership, but it’s better to work together for a better community.

*These two commentaries are quoted in The Mitzvot, by Abraham Chill.

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