By Melissa Berenbaum, Feb 22, 2020

Shabbat Shalom. Mishpatim. Is there a better parsha for a lawyer? This parsha can be described as a combined class in criminal law, property and torts – all in one. This parsha sets out the laws, intended to create a just and equitable society, and is referred to as the Book of the Covenant.

The laws are grouped together. The first section addresses wrongdoing that is redressed by courts, including treatment of slaves; behavior which for which the death penalty will be imposed; lesser offenses, causing physical injury to one person against another and injuries to animals and injuries caused by animals, which result in the imposition of damages or restitution; laws of theft and property damage, and the seduction of a virgin.

The second section addresses moral and ethical behavior, behavior not necessarily redressed by a court or government. These pronouncements are intended to set up norms – expected conduct and behavior – for society. We police ourselves when it comes to these commandments. And it includes directives on how to treat the less fortunate and the stranger. This section also includes the sabbatical year for fields and another reminder that the seventh day is a day of rest, as well as to refrain from invoking other gods.

The parsha also lays out the observance of the “shalosh regalim” – Feast of Unleavened bread (Pesach), Harvest (Shavuot), and Ingathering (Sukkot). Just as an aside – no mention of an extra set of dishes for Pesach… just saying!

The prescripts laid out in this parsha are meant for a people settled, living in a particular place. But the Israelites are not yet in the land that God has promised. The parsha includes a description of the road ahead – and what obstacles God will clear for them. And the parsha concludes with Moshe ascending Mount Sinai.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the second section of the Covenantal Code.

Chapter 22, Verses 20 – 26: (Robert Alter translation)

“You shall not cheat a sojourner and you shall not oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. No widow nor orphan shall you abuse. If you indeed abuse them, when they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their outcry. And my wrath shall flare up and I will kill you by the sword, and your wives shall be widows and your children orphans. If you should lend money to My people, to the pauper among you, you shall not be to him like a creditor, you shall not impose interest on him. If you should indeed take in pledge your fellow man’s cloak, before the sun comes down you shall return it to him. For it is his sole covering, it is his cloak for his skin – in what can he lie? And so, when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am compassionate.”

This is not the only time the God tells the Israelites not to oppress the widow, orphan and sojourners. It comes up in the next chapter, v. 9:

“No sojourner shall you oppress, for you know the sojourner’s heart, since you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

And again, in V’Ikrya, ch. 19, v. 33-34:

“And should a sojourner sojourn with you, you shall not wrong him. Like the native among you shall be the sojourner who sojourns with you, and you shall love him like yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”

And 4 times in D’varim: Ch. 10, v. 17-19:

“For the Lord your God, He is the God of gods and the Master of masters, the great and mighty and fearsome God Who shows no favor and takes no bribe, doing justice for orphan and widow and loving the sojourner to give him bread and cloak. And you shall love the sojourner, for sojourners you were in the land of Egypt.”

Ch 24, v. 14:

“You shall not oppress a poor and needy hired worker from your brothers or from your sojourners who are in your land within your gates.”

Continuing at v. 17-18:

“You shall not skew the case of a sojourner or an orphan, and you shall not take as pawn a widow’s garment. And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God” ransomed you from there.”

And as the Israelites are poised to enter the land, in Chapter 27, as the Levites are calling out the commandments to the people, in v. 19, they say, “’Cursed be he who skews the case of a sojourner, orphan or widow.’ And all the people shall say ‘Amen.’”

So why all the repeated references to protecting the sojourner – or stranger – the widow and the orphan? Why the constant reminder that the Israelites were strangers in Egypt?

Rashi comments on the verses of Mishpatim, regarding the giving of credit to a poor person, that God is reminding the people that the poor person is one of God’s people, too. And to look at yourself as if you are the poor person.

This is God’s directive that we have empathy and compassion for those around us. So we are continually reminded in the Torah that we were strangers, we knew how it felt to be at the bottom rung of society, and we should never forget that.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written:

Empathy is not a lightweight, touchy-feely, add-on extra to the moral life. It is an essential element in conflict resolution. People who have suffered pain often respond by inflicting pain on others. The result is violence, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, at times directed against individuals, at others, against whole groups. The only genuine, non-violent alternative is to enter into the pain of the other in such a way as to ensure that the other knows that he, she or they have been understood, their humanity recognised and their dignity affirmed.

Rabbi Sacks’ teaching continues:

But active empathy is life-changing, not only for you but for the people with whom you interact. Instead of responding with anger to someone else’s anger, try to understand where the anger might be coming from. In general, if you seek to change anyone’s behaviour, you have to enter into their mindset, see the world through their eyes and try to feel what they are feeling, and then say the word or do the deed that speaks to their emotions, not yours. It’s not easy. Very few people do this. Those who do, change the world.

Empathy and compassion begin with kindness. Before we can put ourselves in the shoes of another and try to understand their circumstances, we have to suspend judgments and open our hearts.

About 10 years ago, as Josh and Mira were at the age of middle schoolers and I began to realize that I didn’t have a window on all facets of their lives, I struggled to engage them in conversation. “How was school?” “What’s new?” “What happened today?” These were inadequate questions to draw them out into a meaningful conversation. So what did I do in this modern age – search the Internet! And I found some article that contained a variety of questions designed to elicit more than “yes” “no” and “fine” and “good” as answers. I realized if I posed these questions on a daily basis, my kids might never come out of their rooms. But I distilled them and thought it would be a good way to engage them at Shabbat dinner. And we ask 4 questions on Friday nights around our table:

How were you kind this week?

How were you brave?

Can you share a success with us?

Or is there something that didn’t go so well this week that you want to share, so we can support you?

They only have to answer one question, and many weeks the answer was simply a good grade on a test. But some weeks it was more – helping a fellow student with some work, giving someone a ride who needed one. And for their parents, it causes us to go through out week knowing we will have to provide an answer to one of the questions.

God commands us to never forget our experience in slavery – of being the other in a society, and to never treat a stranger the way we were treated, and to give special consideration to those who are less fortunate – the widow, the orphan, the poor.

If that is how God expects us to treat the less fortunate, what could God expect from us with regard to the people we know, the people with whom we share community? I believe the commandment has broader application than how we treat the stranger and the less fortunate.

First, we can’t always know what’s going on in the lives of those with whom have relationships: who may be dealing with the needs of a parent, or another relative, or a child. And we can’t necessarily know about the challenges someone may be experiencing at work, or a financial challenge. So in our interactions, it’s important that we be mindful of what we might not know about a person.

Second, is there any downside to being empathic and showing compassion? It may actually produce a better and more productive relationship. For example, during my time as Rosh (now really concluded!), a good part of my role was about working to make sure we had appropriate space to daven each Shabbat, making sure we had the right equipment, even the right chairs. I had to appreciate that while our space was the most important thing for us, those with whom I interacted had a lot of things they were juggling. And by my recognizing their responsibilities and obligations, I was more likely to be heard.

Another priority has been addressing the needs of those who need assistance with hearing. Steady persistence and consistent engagement may finally payoff, with the hearing loop being installed in the coming months.

I have tried to advocate for the Library Minyan, in the context of respecting the other stakeholders in Temple Beth Am and finding a means of accommodation, rather than confrontation. Co-existing in a mutually enhancing way benefits all of us and the larger Temple Beth Am community.

It may be a variation on the theme of remembering the stranger when we take care in our interactions to respect one another. And I think the wisest Torah commentator was my mother, zichrona l’vracha, when she lovingly looked at my brother and me as we were fighting and admonished us to, “Be Nice.” In being nice – showing empathy and compassion — in our interactions with one another, we are doing God’s work.

Shabbat shalom.

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