This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim ([Laws], Exodus 21:1-24:18), warns us severely and often about evils of racism. The bible knew no such word, of course, and, ironically, this portion also contains material that appears to accept “bondage” as a normal part of [ancient] life. But messages about racial justice and related concepts are nonetheless there, and quite strong, if we look carefully.

“God’s wrath” and “idolatry”

The biblical expression “divine wrath” is reserved for cases of idolatry on the part of the whole Nation, according to Maimonides and later scholars. And this understanding calls us to avoid afflicting “widows and orphans”:

In our case [Exodus 22:23: “My wrath will burn (וְחָרָה אַפִּי)”], the same expression is deliberately used in order to equate the affliction of the orphan and the widow to idolatry, teaching us that there is no crime greater than this.
New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, Nehama Leibowitz, p.395

Many teachers understand “widows and orphans” as a biblical expression meaning “the most vulnerable among us,” which surely includes victims of hundreds of years of racism in the U.S. From a somewhat more literal perspective, black communities today include too many widows and orphans, as well as grieving mothers and traumatized communities.

Moreover, idolatry and racism are directly connected:

Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.

Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.

“Race prejudice, a universal human ailment, is the most recalcitrant aspect of the evil in man” (Reinhold Niebuhr), a treacherous denial of the existence of God.

What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Conference on “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 JANUARY 1963)

Both Heschel and Leibowitz stress, based on ancient tradition, that being silent in the face of oppression is as serious as committing the crime ourselves. (No time to explore this further right now — Shabbat is almost upon us — but will return to this theme.)

Strangers

This portion is also one in which we are warned about not oppressing a stranger, reminded again and again that we were once strangers in Egypt.

In addition, we are warned against “false reports” and “running with the multitude,” both of which seem obviously connected to racism. (Again, time has run out for now. More later.)
Continue reading

“…to the poor person who is with you [et-he’ani imach]…” (Exodus 22:24) Listen!  Did that study group just ask “us” to consider the plight of “the poor”? Did that prayer just focus on “the needy” as though we were weren’t present?  Is this house of prayer really for all people? Listen!  Recognize the special burdens […]

People of holiness shall you be to Me: you shall not eat flesh of an animal that was torn in the field [t’reifah]; to the dog shall you throw it. — Exodus/Shemot 22:30

The Hebrew “treif” — Yiddish, “trayf” — comes from the verb taraf (tav-reish-feh), “to prey, devour,” and came to mean, more generally, “unfit to eat” or unkosher.

————————————————————–
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
Continue reading

“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him.” — Exodus 23:4

One of the important features found in Mishpatim regarding the regulating of behavior in the public sphere is when it deals with those situations wherein there is a breakdown within the normal and expected realities that generally govern this sphere. Such a breakdown undermines peaceful coexistence between society’s members….

…the Torah is attempting to create men who, in their interactions with others, are governed by a sense of responsibility to act not in accordance with their own interests, but rather in accordance with the needs, hopes, and aspirations of the other. If Hillel (Talmud, Shabbat 31a) states that the fundamental principle governing our moral interactions is “what is hateful to you, do not do to others,” the laws of lost property dictate and teach us that you are not the sole barometer of what is right and what is necessary, but, rather, the other person who is in need of your assistance. It is your responsibility to truly see the other — to be senstive to their needs and desires and then to respond with moral activism. — Hartman, p.117, 121

This quote is taken from R. Donniel Hartman’s essay, “A Man in Public,” IN The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary.* The entire essay can be read at http://books.google.com. The brief article discusses some of the related issues in Jewish law, such as how to determine when an article is “ownerless.”

Shemot/Exodus 23:4 is frequently referenced in explorations of Jewish values generally and, more specifically, with regard to “hakem takem imo” — lifting up/aiding those in distress. It is cited, along with other verses from this week’s portion, in Hershey H. Friedman’s “Creating a Company Code of Ethics: Using the bible as a guide.” See also, Nechama Leibowitz,* “Two Acts of Help.”

* Please see Source Materials for complete citations and more details.

————————————————————–
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
Continue reading

In Exodus/Shemot 22:20-23, God commands the people not to “wrong* or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Plaut/Stern translation**). adding a note about also caring for widows and orphans and concluding with one of those dire warnings that is apparently so unspeakable, the text breaks off, causing some translators to resort to ellipsis, before presenting a very specific threat:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…
For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,
and I will hearken, hearken to their cry,
my anger will flare up
and I will kill you with the sword,
so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!– Fox**

If you [dare to] cause him pain…! for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans. — Stone**

Continue reading

This portion’s many rules/laws [mishpatim] are followed by powerful narrative (chapter 24) which includes the people’s famous utterance — “we will do and we will listen [or hearken/heed/obey]!” — and an episode in which a group of Israelites “beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exodus/Shemot 24:3, 7, 11).

There is a great deal of commentary on “na’aseh v’nishma,” which is variously translated as “we will do and we will obey” (Stone*) or “we will do and we will hearken/listen,” (Fox*) or “we will do and we will heed” (Alter*). Some of the earliest can be found in Shabbat 88a-b in the Babylonian Talmud*:

R. Eleazar said: When the Israelites gave precedence to ‘we will do’ over “we will hearken,’ a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them, Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels, as it is written, Bless the Lord, ye angels of his. Ye might in strength, that fulfill his word. That hearken unto the voice of his word [Ps. 103:20] first they fulfill and then they hearken?

Some other places to explore paths leading from this verse are: Schwartz’s Tree of Souls,* Reform Judaism magazine’s piece on “Healing the World,” R. Jill Jacobs’ article “Do First, Understand Later” on My Jewish Learning.

For another path, consider a contemporary midrash with many notes on the “lunch with God” episode, Exodus/Shemot 24:9-11, see “One Woman’s Conclusion.

* For complete citations and more details on Torah commentaries and other works — including a link to the Babylonian Talmud in PDF — please see Source Materials.

————————————————————–
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
Continue reading

One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah) for Exodus 24:1-11 I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how glad I often was that I was not destined to fully join my husband’s prophetic family. I, for one, was perfectly content as one of the ones who stayed far off [1]. I already knew I couldn’t — and wouldn’t care […]