Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Mishpatim 007

The Torah related mischief I was up to last week:
In the interest of full disclosure, I spoke on Mishpatim a couple years ago. When Paul told me last week he had a cancellation I had a difficult time refusing him since, when I had his job, he was my get out of jail free speaker and I owe him big time. I will admit that I considered giving the same talk verbatim; probably 75% of you weren’t here that day and the remaining quarter have either completely forgotten it or were in a Kiddush club induced haze at the time. Although two years is a millisecond compared to the eternity of the Torah, I continue to change and, one can only hope, evolve. Major lifecycle events are obvious catalysts for personal change. But time’s arrow works in more subtle ways, as small things – books, movies, conversations, epiphanies during sleepless nights – also have great affect.

Sometimes one of these ideas or incidents gets stuck on shuffle repeat in my mind. As I mentioned last time around, once Moses ascends Mt. Sinai the Torah undergoes a major genre switch, like changing the channel from HBO to CSPAN. So, do not worry, I plan on addressing the dry legal stuff, but first allow me to wax anecdotal.

I live in, officially, the most diverse ZIP code in the United States. (Obviously, outside the eruv.) Sure, a big factor in our move was that we wanted a relatively affordable house with a yard in a lakefront neighborhood, but we also value heterogeneity. I want my kids playing with children from diverse backgrounds. This does not detract from our Jewish identity, but enhances it. As a diaspora people, the local flavors and philosophies absorbed throughout history meld with our values to create our rich cultural Jewish heritage. Living in an insular community does not make the world a smaller place, it just narrows our view of it.

The downside to living in East Rogers is that it is a shlep to my very few friends who stay home with their children and, although I have not been called shy since I was ten, I typically am not one to initiate friendships, call me old-fashioned, but I need someone else to make the first move. I had heard the myth of the neighborhood park as watering hole and my husband, no doubt feeling I was in need of some socialization last summer, frequently suggested that I go to the park and meet some other stay-at-home moms.

One afternoon, as the barrage of missiles on Northern Israel was winding down, we went over to Pottawatomie Park, a block from our house, to play and meet Daddy after work. I was pushing Yelena on a swing and a tall woman wearing a headscarf was pushing a cute little girl in a lavender dress a couple swings down. She was friendly and spoke to me, typical maternal chitchat. She asked my daughter’s name and, when I asked her in return, she told me, “Maryam. It’s Arabic for Miriam.” I almost said, “I know. My Hebrew name’s Miriam,” but I stopped myself and just smiled. Although we continued to talk, I froze.

I had known immediately from her hijab that she was Arabic. I dance to Arabic music and I have Arab and Muslim friends – friendships which do not contradict my commitment to Israel, thank you very much – admittedly, both my friends and the dance form are pretty secular. In the park, I was wearing an ancient concert t-shirt, basketball shorts and sandals. Compared to Britney Spears or some of the bat mitzvah girls, I was dressed rather modestly. Practicing tzniut, I was certainly not. Yet this woman in a headscarf was willing to overlook that and initiate conversation, which was more than any of the frum women at Indian Boundary Park ever did. Here we were, two first time mothers waiting for our husbands to come home from work, probably both a little lonely and hungry for adult contact. She was friendly and articulate. If she had been, say, Asian or African-American I doubt I would have refused her overtures. I could justify my reticence by the politically charged times and my desire not to get into it, but if it were that simple I would not still reflect on it. Was I upset that I, never one for self-censoring, hesitated from outing myself as a Jew? Warmer, but what I think still bothers me about my behavior was my assumption regarding how she would react She stepped outside her cultural boundaries in search of a universal connection whereas I simply shut down.

The mishpatim of this parsha are not theoretical legislation, externally imposed from outside the narrative, they are an integral part of the story of the Jewish people. The Exodus was not just the escape from the arbitrary and unjust institution of slavery, but the constant exodus into a righteous way of life. The litany of laws, the sefer ha’brit, do not merely delineate parameters for a just and equitable society, to avoid and resolve sticky situations. We follow these rules to become holier.

Interspersed among legislation regarding slavery, lest the Israelites repeat the mistakes of their Egyptian captors, and criminal and civil law, there is a subset of laws describing how to treat marginalized members of society: the widow and orphan, the stranger, and one’s personal enemy. All the laws in Mishpatim deal with how we are to conduct ourselves in order not to be bad, but these rules offer specific instructions in how to be good. Some mitzot are the bare minimum, following them diligently is a bit like being a B student, you care enough to do the work but are not willing to put forth extra effort. Some commandments are straightforward: don’t eat pig, don’t plow the corners of your field, don’t gather wood on Shabbat. Other commandments are abstract and require improvisation.

The most comprehensible of these four laws is the injunction not to abuse a widow or orphan. Orphans, and widows back in the unfortunate days when women were not socially independent, are alone in the world and lack status and power. Outside the umbrella of a family unit, they are unprotected and defenseless. They may appear to have no one to notice or avenge their maltreatment, but God assures us that although the orphan and the widow may be without the protection of man they are under the protection of God. In wronging them one wrongs God as well. Mistreating someone vulnerable, like a child or the sick, is vile and inexcusable. Yet it is not sufficient to refrain from abusing the widow and the orphan, one must actively help them. Abravanel states that whoever sees a person afflicted and does not help them is accounted an afflictor, those who have the power to protest or take action and do not are an accessory to a crime.

Unless you are completely heartless, the orphan and the widow are inherently sympathetic characters. But what about those with whom we do not naturally empathize, people we simply do not like or those who are strange to us? Rabbi Elezer the Great points out that thirty-six times the Torah directs us in the treatment of the stranger. This mitzvot is phrased both positively and negatively, addressing the message to the optimist and pessimist alike. Thirty-six times is more than any other mitzvot, including all the laws on kashrut. Yet how much more do many Jews obsess over hecshures than consider the welfare of the stranger? Now, I am not advocating eating traffe, I am suggesting that we are more inclined to follow these commandments because they are explicit. Putting ourselves in the position of the stranger, walking the proverbial mile in another’s moccasins, requires personal adjustment, a lot more demanding mentally and emotionally than minding a checklist of what not to eat.

These commandments remind us that the Israelites’ experience of slavery forms the core of our moral obligations to other people, Jews and non-Jews alike. We were strangers in the land of Egypt and we know the feelings of the stranger. Jews have all too often felt the pain of being far from home and having no champion. Nachama Leibowtiz suggests that the Torah reiterates this commandment so often to prevent us from acting out on any feelings of humiliation over our bondage and exile, thus mistreating others because we have been mistreated. As former slaves we must empathize with those who are now in a tight place, rather than feel claustrophobia and shame in identification with them. God redeemed us from slavery and we learn holiness from God’s example; we have responsibility toward all victims.

This mitzvot is also a preventative measure against xenophobia and prejudice. Many commentators employ this directive to ensure fair conduct toward converts. In a lawsuit between a convert and a born Israelite, one is not to assume wrong on account of idolatrous origins. The Talmud states that, “Should a proselyte come to study Torah do not say to him, ‘The mouth that has consumed forbidden meats… has the audacity to study Torah given from the mouth of the Almighty.’” Converts to Judaism are likened to newborn children, at conversion their souls are renewed as perfect. Reading the Torah and prophetic writings, we see that the Israelites have participated in their fair share of idol worship as well, but God does not hold that perpetually against them.

Through showing compassion to those who are displaced on any scale we merit the compassion of God. How Jews treat the stranger has far reaching implications, from the personal to the political, from the smallest gesture to public policy. This mitzvah goes further and encourages us to reserve judgment on things that we find unfamiliar, not just people, but ideas or experiences we find strange or threatening. We are to give the benefit of the doubt, to imaginatively put ourselves in the position of others. As long as we do not violate other mitzvot, we can follow this most frequently repeated commandment and keep an open mind.

It is difficult to keep an open mind toward someone who has wronged you or with whom you do not see eye to eye. Inserted in the middle of the section dealing with the proper administration of justice are two incongruous mitzvot that spell out how to behave toward one’s enemy. Just as we are prohibited from perverting justice for the needy, Cassuto implores us not to pervert justice against one’s enemy. As with the orphan and the stranger, avoiding evil alone is not enough; doing good demands we lend an enemy a helping hand. These mitzvot direct a person to return an enemy’s animal that has gone astray and, if the animal of an enemy is struggling under its burden, to help release it. On one level, these laws ensure that an animal, an innocent party, does not suffer for the wrongs of its owner. Back in my days of apartment dwelling, my horrid downstairs neighbors played the crappiest garage music late at night, but when their locked-out cat showed up at our doorstep mewing, I still returned him to his owners.

On a higher level, these mitzvot have the potential to initiate a transformation in behavior. Sometimes the smallest gesture triggers a change of heart. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the Aramaic translation of “you shall surely release his burden” is “you shall let go of the hate you have in your heart toward him.” The physical act of releasing the beast’s burden leads to the psychological act of letting go the burden of animosity. Temporarily uniting in a common purpose with someone you dislike shows there is potential for cooperation on other issues and a chance at reconciliation, like Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential.

As the proverb goes, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread, if thirsty, give him water to drink.” These two commandments acknowledge the difficulty of “not hating your brother in your heart,” but give direction in how to overcome a grudge and open one’s mind. Jews do not have two codes of behavior: one for our friend and one for our enemy; one for the Jew and one for the stranger. Ethical behavior is the application of consistent standards to all equally and equitably.

I wish I had a satisfying resolution to my story, that Yelena and Maryam stack blocks together in an idyllic vision of the daughters of Isaac and Ishmael, while their mothers sip tea – perhaps peaceably debating centuries of contention or politely avoiding the subject altogether. I have seen Maryam and her mother at a distance a few times since then and have always felt a twinge of something, maybe regret, a multi-layered regret conflating so many personal and political emotions. I guess the true test of my following these mitzvot is what I do if Yelena and Maryam ever find themselves sitting next to each other on the swings.

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