Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 25th Sh’vat 5775, 14th February 2015
Which one of the ten commandments we read last week seems to be the most surprising, the least likely to have been foreseen by the Israelites, or others? The first three, about God, are predictable enough. The last five, about limiting harmful human behaviors, are logical. That leaves number four – the Shabbat, and number five, honor your parents. The Shabbat is a great idea, no doubt about it, but it can also be subsumed under the category of divine will. I rested, I command you to rest, so rest. Number five, honor your mother and father, is the unexpected one, according to Rabbi Ari Kahn.
In what way is it unusual? Because in essence it says, respect me but also share your respect for me with respect for someone else – your parents. By doing so, it brings filial respect, which is one of the main bases for interpersonal relations in society, into the realm of religion, making our social interactions a part of the religious sphere.
In other words, not only is there only one God who created all, but all the laws of life, the religious laws and those pertaining to our relations with our fellow humans, are part of the same cloth.
This is an eye-opening idea on both the general and specific levels. It has ramifications and implications for how we are supposed to comport ourselves, but it also gives greater coherence to our parsha. We have to look at mishpatim, the rules, in light of the ten commandments we read last week. Thou shalt not kill. But what if…. So today we read about manslaughter, criminal negligence and premeditated murder, and the different punishments for each. We learn that holding onto the horns of the altar will not save the premeditative murderer. He is to be snatched away and punished.
But it is the social and economic laws that are fascinating. When Israel was declared a state there was some debate about which set of laws should be adopted – the British, the Ottoman, or the Jewish. The Jewish laws lost out in official state lawbook status and to a certain extent that is a shame. Jewish law does not cover everything, but in terms of concern for the weak, which includes the stranger or convert, there is nothing like the Torah.
For instance, if you give a poor man a loan and take his coat as security, you have to give it back to him at night, so that he does not suffer from the cold and get sick. Compare that to taking a loan from a bank today. Or from a money lender (and by the way, interest is illegal).
The issue of how to treat the ger – whether the convert or the stranger in our midst, is addressed many times. You have to treat them well because you were strangers in Egypt. You know what it’s like to be an outsider. And then we read how the infiltrators, refugees, work-seekers – whatever you want to call them – are treated. I know that this is an oversimplification and I can only begin to understand the complexity of the problem, including the potential security threat, and economic threat, etc. But basic decency has to be observed. To which the argument is raised: if they are treated too well all their friends and relatives will be clamoring to get in. Maybe. Still, red lines have not been crossed. They have been obliterated and we as a society seem to be bobsledding down a slippery slope into apathy for others.
This concern about the stranger also helps us to understand why the parsha begins with the laws about a Hebrew slave. He shall work for six years and in the seventh he shall be set free. This is a double-barreled message. Taken superficially, it says: When you were in Egypt you were born a slave and you remained a slave till your dying day. Not so here. If you’re a slave today because you have to be, in the seventh year you will be free.
That’s great, the former slave thinks. I wish I had had that in Egypt. And that brings us to the second, underlying message. You WERE a slave. You KNOW what it’s like. Have some rachmanut, some decency if and when you come into a position of power. As if that will work.
One of my favorite books is the Education of Hyman Kaplan, by Leo Rosten. A Polish Jew in a night school in America is trying to learn English. One night he has to talk about his job and his aspirations. He says, I’m a cloth cutter, and I don’t like my foreman. He gives me all the rotten job. When I get to be foreman, I’m going to give him all the miserable jobs.
That’s what I’m talking about. Remember what it was like when you were in a lowly or precarious position, not so that you can get back at them, but to empathize with them.
Precarious position reminds us that Purim will be here in just under three weeks. Today we read the first of the two special parshot preceding Purim and the first of the four that precede Pesach. It’s a time of rejoicing, to be sure, but part of the rejoicing includes sending gifts to friends, and to the poor. Even or especially in our times of joy, we have to remember our basic concern for others, as we are instructed in parshat Mishpatim, and remember to treat others with the same respect we wish to receive.