Archive for Mishpatim

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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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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