D’var Torah: Mishpatim

| February 11, 2010

Courtesy Alexander Smolianitski (http://flickr.com/photos/smolianitski/)

Courtesy Alexander Smolianitski (http://flickr.com/photos/smolianitski/)

In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, we are given a series of commandments concerning the relationship between man and man. This parsha directly follows that of Yitro, in which we received the Ten Commandments, revelation at Sinai, and experienced Hashem first hand.

“Now these are the laws which you shall set before them: If you buy (תִקְנֶה) a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go to freedom, for nothing.” (Shmot 21:2)

The striking fact about all of this is that we just left HUNDREDS OF YEARS OF SLAVERY – we just reached the epitamy of closeness with the divine – and directly following these two monumental events, we are given the above law – concerning owning a ‘Hebrew servant / slave’. Wow, how quickly we jump back into slavery! You might think after hundreds of years of slavery, we would dispense with the whole idea, and have a rule along the lines of “Thou shalt not own a Hebrew slave…”. Instead what we have is the word –  ki – which might be understood as ‘if’, ‘when’, ‘if and when’ or ‘just in case’.

So what does this ki mean? I believe it means “just in case”. Just in case you thought you had the ownership of another human being, think again. This is not time to become Egyptian taskmasters, this is a time for humility and retrospection. YOU will not enslave for hundreds of years, YOU will understand that a life has supreme value and YOU must acknowledge that supreme value by controlling your impulse to live comfortably and benefit while your fellow man lives a downtrodden existence indefinitely.

What does this have to do with us in 2010? I surely don’t own any slaves, and slavery was abolished in this country hundreds of years ago, so I guess my job here is done. Well, not so fast. Another ki exists that might help explain this ki.

“Kit ere shor o hamor achicha nofel baderech – If / when you see your brother’s donkey or ox fallen by the road,

“V’hitalamta mehem – ha’kem takim imo”. – Don’t ignore it, with him raise it up.”

Here we have another ki, a situation one might experience, in which again, the natural impulse might be to ignore the issue, allow it to continue indefinitely. Here we are told again – NO, YOU must not allow suffering to continue indefinitely, YOU are above that, YOU change the world for the better and YOU see the continuation of the status quo as being utterly unacceptable.

Ibn Ezra comments on this week’s parsha, and it’s limiting of slavery:

“ואין לאדם בעולם יותר קשה עליו מהיותו ברשות אדם כמוהו”
“There is nothing harder in the world for a man than to be in the rshut of another like him.”

We know the word rshut means: “property of”, and we also know that it has a second meaning: optional.

So what are the options? We either treat humans as humans, who need to live a human-like life; or ignore the suffering of a fellow man, which we’ve learned that we can’t even do in the case of animals (ki tere… as well as other prohibitions against ignoring the suffering of animals).

So let’s look at our situation today.

  • More than 17 MILLION children live in food insecure households – Meaning they live in a situation in which they are unsure if dinner is happening, or if they are going to sleep hungry. UNACCEPTABLE!
  • More than 49 MILLION people in this country live in households considered to be food insecure. UNACCEPTABLE!
  • In Ohio (my home state), 1 in 6 children is hungry or at risk of hunger. 1 in 6!  UNACCEPTABLE!

So what can we do about it? What can be done? How do we get involved and say – It’s unacceptable, it can’t continue?!

Luckily, we live in a country that has a government that has been concerned with hunger and child hunger for quite a while, and these issues are most definitely on their radar.

The “Child Nutrition Programs” line in the National Budget needs to be expanded. We need $4 billion dollars of NEW / additional funding to offset the more than 12 million hungry children. We need to tell our lawmakers that significant new investments in these programs would represent a strong down payment on President Obama’s goal to eliminate child hunger in America by 2015.

Please, do this:
Go to http://engage.jewishpublicaffairs.org/t/1686/content.jsp?content_KEY=872

Print out the letter, mail it to your senator, representative or both, and don’t let the unacceptable status quo continue indefinitely. We are commanded to be better than that. As future (and current) Jewish leaders, it’s our job to stand up for those without a voice in our communities, and to keep the conversation going. I encourage you to discuss these issues with your classmates, students, congregations and families.

Shabbat Shalom,

– Mick Fine
MAZON: The Jewish Response to Hunger
JTS Rabbinical Fellow

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