Mishpatim: Racism and Idolatry

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.)
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A House of Prayer for All People?

“…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 of relative wealth, but don’t assume everyone here bears them. 
Acknowledge privilege but don’t assume everyone present enjoyed its fruits. 
And never speak as though “the poor” are not in the house. 

Listen!
Can you hear the sounds of loss and fear, struggle and stress all around you?  
Know the difference between sleeping on a park bench and moving in with friends when house payments fail; 
Realize that worrying about whether one will eat today is different from making excuses to skip business lunches; 
Understand that dropping out of college is more catastrophic than struggling on without textbooks or funds to visit home; 
And be aware that never having a day of economic ease sits on one’s consciousness differently than losing one’s pension. 
But remember that no challenge is easy to manage just because someone else is facing a greater — or a different — one.
Hear, and honor, everyone’s experience.

Only then, when all have listened and all have heard. Only then, when our language and our minds make room for the full variety around us… only then, together, will our “light blaze forth like the dawn” and our “wounds quickly heal.”

(2012, CC BY-NC-SA)

Mishpatim: Something to Notice

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.

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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.
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Mishpatim: Great Source(s)

“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.

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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.
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Mishpatim: Language and Translation

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**

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Mishpatim: A Path to Follow

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.

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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.
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One Woman’s Conclusion (Ex. 24)

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 to — go a step closer.

But, there I was, among the seventy [2]. For the record, which is not always clear, there were five women among the atzelai[3]: Shifra and Puah by virtue of their standing in the community [4]; Miriam, because she usually managed to be everywhere that concerned her brother [5]; Serakh, because of her status as an elder — yes, I agree that “elder” is something of an understatement for the daughter of Asher ben Jacob [6], but that’s another story — and, you’re right, even 500 years weren’t enough for her to be considered an “Elder” with a capitol `E,’ but we’d better leave that for another day, too. And me? I don’t know exactly how I ended up there.

Anyway, there we were, the seventy of us plus Moses, sharing an experience… Or, at least we agreed about the bricks. Well, maybe `agree’ isn’t quite the word:

Abihu saw a pattern of complex crystals [7]; Nadav, fired brick [8]. Aaron saw the foundation stones of the Covenant [9]. Someone said the pyramid bricks had been transformed into gemstones [10]. Shifra saw glistening birthing stones and even wondered aloud if we’d be inundated when the waters really broke [11]. Puah said no, labor must be further along, given all the quaking and thunder [12]. The rest of us knew better than to get into that one.

And, there was never much hope of agreement on the color. Some had clearly seen blue [13]; others insisted on white [14]. A few suggested that the surface merely reflected what was above it [15].

All told, there must be more than 70 different accounts, and each one will no doubt become the basis for many more tales [16]. So, let me stick to mine.

When we first arrived at the place, we were engulfed in ground-fog. Nadav and Abihu were already trying to climb higher, but Miriam reached out to pull them back. In the end, she had no more success with her nephews [17] than I had with her brother, but that morning, the young men followed her lead.

Miriam began a dance. Abihu, Nadav, and the rest of us fell right into step with her, all of us whirling through the mist, around those bricks and their many meanings, immersed in the dance and the Presence. Maybe it was the natural way Miriam responded, or the community gathered around us. I’m not sure. But I do know that this couldn’t have been more different from that night at the lodging place [18]…

Later, when the sun’s rays were just beginning to find us, the veil of morning mist was suddenly torn from the mountain [18] bathing us in a light so bright and so blue that it took my breath away [19, 20].

“It’s not true, you know,” Serakh began, “that we can’t see God” [21]. There were a lot of worried looks then, but she continued in her calm, storyteller’s voice. “My great-great-grandfather’s second wife was forced to leave the family [22], but before she left, Hagar touched us in many ways and shared with us her name for God: God of Vision, God of my seeing, who sees me” [23]. I looked out at the faces around the circle, at Serakh’s ancient, furrowed brow; at Abihu’s eager, young eyes; at Aaron’s peacemaking smile and Puah’s determined chin. Serakh was right, of course. We can see God and live to tell of it. We do it all the time [24].

A twig snapped somewhere, and the moment was gone. Suddenly, as if we’d planned it — or all realized our hunger at once — we all began scurrying for our provisions. Aaron suggested looking for Moses, who’d disappeared by then [25], but Miriam and I agreed — a rare event in our acquaintance…and about something concerning her brother, at that! — to let Moses pursue his experience as we pursued ours. So, we saw God, and we ate and drank [26, 27].

And what happened to Moses? Well, I long ago gave up trying to explain what it was like being co-wife to the Shekhinah [28], and I never tried to interpret Moses’ experiences. But, I will tell you this: Everyone else will tell you that Moses had already disappeared by the time we started to dance that morning at the bricks. But I know what I know, and I know that Moses and I were joined for a few moments in that dance, not as husband and wife, but as two within the Presence. The weight he’d been carrying seemed to have become pure energy; he was light and free and burning again with the bush’s fire. And when we danced, Moses handed me a gift I’ve needed many times in these last 40 years — the certainty that the Presence would never crush him and that, because of the weight he willing bore, we all dance on firmer ground.

End notes:
1. “Atzelai,” Ex 24:11. At Ex 24:1, Ex 24:9, and elsewhere, ziknei, elders, are summoned. Here, the term often translated as “elders,” “great men,” or “nobles” is a different, rarely used expression: atzelai. In Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (based on Samuel Raphael Hirsch’s etymology), atzelai is translated as the “ones who stayed at far off.”

2. See Exodus/Shemot 24:1.

3. Buber says the term “Atzelai,” means either “corner pillars” or “joints” (Moses: Revelation and the Covenant, p.118). Another reading (Ramban) is based on the verb “to emanate,” because “the spirit of G-d emanated upon them. Similarly, `I have called thee mei-atzilehah‘ from those upon whom his spirit has emanated (Isaiah 41:9).”

4. See Exodus/Shemot 1:21, “And it was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses.”

5. Miriam is closely connected with her brother’s life, even before it begins: In midrash, she is responsible for insisting, at age 6, that the Hebrew couples (including her parents) who had separated during Pharaoh’s decree, remarry and produce childrenamong whom is Moses (Sotah 12a). She follows her brother’s passage down the Nile, is there to offer a wet-nurse to Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex 2:4-7)….

6. See Numbers/Bamidbar 26:40 and associated midrash. Serakh bat Asher ben Jacob, who would have been born five centuries before the Exodus, is listed when the census is taken in Numbers; midrash links this apparent longevity to the grandchild’s role in announcing Joseph’s whereabouts to Jacob. See, e.g., p.85 in Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam.*

7. Ex 24:10: “Ha-sappir.” See p.175 in Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, “precious stone composed of many crystals.”

8. Ex 24:10: “Livnat.” Fired brick.

9. Hertz Soncino on Ex 24:10.

10. Rashi on Ex 24:10.

11. Based very loosely on a remark in Lifecycles,* vol. 1, p.8 about “a feminized Baruch She’amar” yielding “Blessed is the One who wombs (whose waters break over) the world.”

12. Alicia Ostriker* (Nakedness of the Fathers, p.127) refers to Revelation as God breaking through “heaven’s membrane, from being beyond time to being within time.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve read a midrash more directly making Sinai a birth-event, but I can’t remember where: If you know of such a text, please tell me; if not, you read it here first!

13. Another reading of ha-sappir is “sapphire,” though not apparently the corundum-based gem but lapis lazuli which was known to the ancient Near East (heavily featured, for example, in items from the Tombs of Ur, recently [recently in 2000, when this was written] on exhibit at the Sackler Gallery).

There is also a tradition that the tablets given to Moses were made of this blue stone (my daughter, Tracy Spatz O’Brien [then age 9], found this in her The Little Midrash Says for Shemot, with sources listed as Zohar 37a and Sifsai Kohen.) So, maybe what the atzelai saw were the bits chipped off as God carved the first tablets.

14. Clark’s Etymological Dictionary links livnat with “white,” “purifying” and “bright moon” as well as with “fired brick.”

15. Rabbi Meir’s teaching about the deeply blue dye tekhelet used for tzitzit (Talmud Menachoth 23b), links tekhelet with the color of the sea, the color of the sky, and the Throne of Glory. But, thanks to a drash of [former] Fabrangen member [now active at Adas Israel and with the Jewish Study Center] Sheldon Kimmel (personal communication), we also know that the substance which produces tekhelet is colorless until exposed to light; similarly, water is only blue in reflecting the sky, while the sky is not really blue either, but the way we perceive its light.

16. See notes on Psalm 19 (p.184-187 in Kol Haneshamah). Ha-sappir is related in Clark’s etymology to: `telling, reciting past event’ (Genesis 40:9), `declaring’ (Ps 22:23), `scribe’ (Jr 36:32), `book, collection of ideas’ (Genesis 5:1); and to the concept of “unifying.”

Marc-Alain Ouaknin argues, in Mysteries of the Alphabet, that Sinai was the birth of the alphabet, freeing written symbols from concrete symbolism perhaps even explaining why the Israelites “saw voices.” See also Yitro: Something to Notice.

17. Nadab and Abihu die “offering alien fire” before the Lord (Lev 10:1ff).

18. Exodus 4:24-26: On the journey from Midian to Egypt, Moses is attacked by God, and Zipporah saves him by circumcising their son (or possibly Moses himself, in variant readings). See also my midrash, “Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View.”

19. God tells Moses, “Come up to the mountain, and be there.” Buber says this shows we have to “be there” before the text, i.e., ready to receive it.

If you’re one of those for whom the phrase “be here now” immediately calls to mind Baba Ram Dass, suppose for a moment that after he turned on, instead of traveling to India, Richard Alpert had visited a shul on Shabbat Mishpatim: What kind of book would Rabbi Alpert (Rabbi Ram Dass?) have written?

20. Buber, Moses, pp.117: “…the representatives of Israel come to see Him on the heights of Sinai. They have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder (as I myself happened to witness once) and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun. The sapphire proximity of the heavens overwhelms the aged shepherds of the Delta, who have never before tasted, who have never been given the slightest idea, of what is shown in the play of early light over the summits of the mountains. And this precisely is perceived by the representatives of the liberated tribes as that which lies under the feet of their enthroned Melek.”

21. Compare, e.g., Exodus 33:20.

22. Genesis 21:9-21. Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the desert by Sarah and Abraham.

23. Genesis 16:13. Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, runs way from Sarah’s cruelty, meets an angel in the desert, and names God.

24. Consider, for example: Although the portion ends with ha-elohim meaning “God” — under whose feet the Israelites see bricks, blue, and one another — ha-elohim in the opening of this portion (Ex 21:6) means “judges,” earthly representatives of God.

25. Ex 24:11.

26. Set these ordinances before the people — as a table laid for a meal (Rashi).

27. For those who know that all the really good stuff is in the footnotes anyway: if there are tiles under God’s feet and blue above, maybe the atzelai were invited to join God in the mikveh (the gathering of waters designed to immerse us wholly in a moment, between past and future) or to join God as mikveh (“Hope of Israel,” past, present and future). Thus, the three immersions (fog, movement, and light). And/or, if the bricks are made from the same substance as the Torah (see notes 13 and 16 above), maybe the atzelai are immersed in Torah. And/or…

28. Moses enjoyed an unprecedented, face-to-face relationship with God. Moses is sometimes said to have wed the Shekhinah, the presence of God amongst the people, one of the feminine aspects of God, according to mystical (kabbalistic) teachings.

* Complete citations and further details can be found in Source Materials

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One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah) for Exodus 24:1-11 by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.