Parashat Mishpatim 5778

Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 9 February 2018

Parashat Mishpatim forms a collection of laws in a section of the Torah known as The Book of the Covenant. It includes two types of law: in the first group, the regulations are formulated mainly as case laws, the text revealing a specific scenario and its legal consequences. In the second group, the laws are phrased as unconditional imperatives, echoing the language of the Ten Commandments in the previous week’s parashah.

One of these precepts from the second group is a law that is repeated several times throughout the Torah, in Exodus, at the heart of the Holiness Code in Leviticus (19:33) and in Deuteronomy (e.g. Deuteronomy 10:18). It is a law couched in clear, unambiguous language in what it demands from Israel and in what constitutes a moral vision for a people, standing at Sinai and about to be dispatched into history.

‘V’ger lo-toneh v’lo til’chatzennu…kol-almanah v’yatom lo te’anun…’ “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not oppress any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me…” (Exodus 22:20-22).

The very syntax of these laws exacts our attention. Note how the verses, relating to the stranger, the widow and orphan, begin with the object of the verb: V’ger lo-toneh….Kol-almanah v’yatom lo te’annun – literally, ‘The stranger you shall not oppress….Any widow or orphan you shall not oppress.’ Syntactically, it is forceful, for in placing the object in the place of the subject, before the verb – ‘you shall not oppress’, it removes attention from us; it focuses us squarely on the stranger, the widow and the orphan.

It is as though the Hebrew text says to us: think not of yourselves in this equation, think only of what is fair and just for these individuals and groups of people. And yet at the same time, we should notel how this law, both here and elsewhere, connects us to our own plight as strangers in the land of Egypt.

Slavery and the Exodus from Egypt is the central narrative and drama that lies at the centre of our Jewish faith. The universal laws of justice, compassion and right behaviour are embedded in these stories. These precepts require us to align ourselves with God’s will – embodying these laws in our own lives is what helps us to grow spiritually and physically as individuals and as a community of Liberal Jews.

For we are not simply individuals engaged on a privatised mission of spirituality. Yes, that may be important for our own personal well-being and spiritual growth. But what really counts in the life of a community is the vision of a better society, a just and compassionate world. That must be our lifelong endeavour and passion. And it is that passion that needs to be communicated to the next generation who are born into Judaism. If not, the engine that drives the vision – this drama of slavery, freedom and divine imperative will fade and fail.

How we embody these divine narratives shapes the future of the world. For Muslims it is submitting themselves to the will of God through their observance of Islam; for Christians it is through their belief in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. For Jews, it is this drama of slavery and the Exodus from Egypt – “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” and you know the heart of the stranger. You know what it is like to be poor, to be a slave, to be trafficked, to be ill-treated and oppressed. It is this epic tale of injustice and God’s outcry against injustice that gives rise to the vision of a world in which all people have enough to eat and drink, in which all have shelter, in which all are free to believe, think, work, learn, love and live in freedom.

That is why the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe touches us so deeply – that and our more recent experience as refugees from the Nazi Holocaust, when so many countries closed their doors to Jews fleeing oppression. And that is why, as well, the Israeli government’s move to give African refugees the choice of being deported to a third country or face prison in Israel, sickens and offends so many Jews in Israel and around the world.

850 Rabbis and Cantors from around the world, including 60 from Britain, have signed a letter, urging Israel not to deport those seeking asylum within its borders. The modern state of Israel, built by refugees and immigrants, and serving as a haven for so many fleeing from persecution in Europe and the Middle East, cannot desert that moral vision so clearly and unambiguously expressed in the Torah.

If our Judaism is to mean anything, then we have to embody in our own lives, in our own thinking and actions, the voice of a God who cares for all humanity, and who reaches out to the most vulnerable members of any society. The question: what does the Eternal One your God require of us lies at the heart of a living faith; it is our sacred obligation to stand for the vision and ideal of a better world by countering hostility and indifference and by embracing and enacting the values of our Judaism: compassion and justice, generosity, kindness and love.

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