Archive for Mishpatim

Mishpatim 5760

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 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Until this point, the Torah has been largely, though not exclusively, narrative. Now, after the story of the giving of the Torah, the text is largely, though again not exclusively, concerned with laws and behaviors. This parasha 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 parasha, the holidays are reviewed, and God’s promise to bring the people to the land of Canaan is reiterated. 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.

“Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
(Exodus 23:9)

In the middle of a variety of laws which encourage people to help each other and uphold justice in society, Israel is reminded that a “stranger,” or “resident alien,” must be especially protected, because Israel’s own experience has taught them how easy it is to abuse the most helpless and marginal in society. Israel, more than anybody else, should be able to sympathize with the powerless, and act accordingly.

The simple meaning of the verse, as explained above, is quite clear, and in fact this idea is repeated over and over again in the Torah, more than thirty times. The Torah seems to be teaching that justice grows out of compassion; having an open and sympathetic spirit seems to be a necessary prerequisite to constructing a fair and moral society. This seems right and good, so much so that it’s almost obvious that our religious texts should join compassion and justice together as inseparable imperatives.

However, for at least one great Torah scholar of the previous century, the simple reading of our verse wasn’t so simple. R. Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the “Elder of Slobodka,” (1849-1927) was the head of the famous Slobodka yeshiva in the Baltic region, where he taught Torah in the “mussar” tradition, which emphasized applied ethics, the development of positive character traits, and service to others. He didn’t read this verse as demanding sympathy for others, but deep identification with them, both in their joys and sorrows:

    Please do not explain these words according to their plain meaning, that we are forbidden to oppress a stranger because we too have been strangers and have been oppressed, and thus know the taste of oppression. Rather, the reason is that a person is obligated to feel and to participate in the happiness of his/her fellow, and also their troubles, as if they had afflicted him as well. “You shall love your fellow person as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)- truly just like yourself. A person’s relationships to others is not found to be complete unless he/she can feel himself and his fellow person as being in the same situation, without any separation. (Source: Itturei Torah)

R. Nosson wants us to be so empathetic with other people that we experience their joys and sorrows as our own; it’s a whole deeper level of emotional connection, implying a tremendous effort to transcend our own egos and fears and desires so that we can be fully emotionally present with those around us. Textually, R. Nosson seems to be picking up on the unusual phrase “for you know the soul of a stranger.” The word <nefesh> literally means soul or spirit; most translations render it in this context as “feelings” or “experience” or something similar, following the “plain meaning” as above. R. Nosson seems to be saying that our task is not to “know the soul of the stranger” merely from our past experiences, but as an active part of the commandment- you are to “know the soul” of the people around you right now, in the sense of being deeply identified with their experiences, feeling their pain as yours, their happiness as your own.

To me this implies a whole different way of thinking about our existence in the world. Moral reasoning is based on the idea that each person is a unique, self-contained individual, who can choose to act in certain ways that will be either good or bad for the other individuals around her. Our choices about what is good or bad for the people around us is in turn based on the assumption that there is some things are valued as “good” and other things or outcomes devalued as “bad;” we might get those values from religion, rationality, philosophy, our schooling, our parents, and so on.

R. Nosson seems to be saying that the basic assumption of moral reasoning – that we are autonomous, choosing beings- isn’t enough, perhaps because our assumptions about what is “good” or “bad” might be incorrect, or our ability to rationalize problematic behaviors. Rather, we must attempt to experience just what others are experiencing, so that our decisions about how to treat others becomes not so much a choice based on rational factors but grows organically out of our own being. If we are happy when others are happy, we will, naturally, do what we can for their happiness, for in doing so we increase our own happiness, which is something everybody desires. Similarly, if we suffer along with others, we will work to relieve their suffering and with it our own- service to others becomes a structure for living and vice versa.

It’s a tall order, and perhaps not always achievable. Yet R. Nosson is onto something here- perhaps if we tried on the deepest level possible to connect with the life experience of others, some seemingly difficult decisions would become obvious. Feed a homeless person? If you felt his hunger as your own, of course you would. Protect a victim of spousal abuse? If you felt the blows and the pain as your own, of course you would. Visit the elderly and the shut-ins? If you felt their loneliness as your own, of course you would. The Elder of Slobodka imagined a world where we would have no excuses for not helping others- excuses would be irrelevant, for in his world, human beings would overcome all that separates them and reach out to each other with profound recognition of our shared destiny.

Can we imagine the same thing? Can we afford not to?

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