Thursday, February 16, 2012

Parashat Mishpatim: On Compassion and Justice

Concern for the disadvantaged in society is a strong current in the Torah. Commandments concerning the ger, the stranger in your midst, appear 36 times in the Torah, more times than the commandment to keep Shabbat! In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, meaning “Laws,” there is a section dealing with these types of laws: One must not mistreat the stranger, the widow or the orphan, because you were once strangers and because God heeds their cries. You should lend money to the poor and if you take his garment as a pledge, you must return it at sunset so that he has something to lie with. Why? Again, because “If he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.”

These are laws that demand compassion of us, demand that we, like God, hear the cries of the mistreated in society. But the Torah does not stop there. Compassion alone does not a society make. In the same parsha, we are also enjoined that, when it comes to the court, one may not favor the poor. One must keep far from falsehood, strive toward truth and justice.

There is a need in society for both justice and mercy, for both judges and social workers. Children need parents who can offer them love and sympathy as well as firm boundaries.

God Himself is described as having both of these qualities, the Midat HaDin, the aspect of Justice, and the Midat HaRachamim, the aspect of mercy, sometimes understood as the masculine and feminine aspects of God. In the morning prayer of Barukh She’Amar, we say that God is both gozer umekayem, “Decrees and fulfills His decrees,” and merahem al habriyot, “Has compassion on all creatures.” One name for God, Shadday, has been interpreted as relating both to the word day, for “enough,” the God who set limits on the universe, and also shadayim, for “breasts,” the God who, like a mother, nourishes and protects His offspring.

We are meant to imitate God’s ways. Parashat Mishpatim teaches us that justice and mercy are not two separate things in the universe, but very much intertwined, in us who are little images of God, as in God Himself. We are enjoined to develop both sides of ourselves, to have the strength to be strict and just, to uphold truth and integrity, and to have the heart to listen and be compassionate, to cry with those who are crying and to lend an ear and a dime to those in need. May we find the wisdom to know when to employ each.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Parashat Yitro: On Kingship and Coveting

King Ahab desired the land next to his palace. It was owned by one Navot who had a vineyard on the plot. The king thought it would make a nice royal garden. He tried to buy the area from Navot, but Navot refused; the land had been in his family for generations. King Ahab was used to getting his way. He sulked and cried and refused to eat until his wife, Izevel (Jezebel) came up with a plan. She sent out a royal order to the local authorities asking them to find some people to falsely testify against Navot that he had blasphemed God and the king. The deed was done and Navot was stoned to death as pumishment for an uncommitted crime. The king took possession of the vineyard. (I Kings 21)

This is a story about the dangers of coveting someone else’s things (as Maimonides notes), the last of the 10 commandments. “Thou shalt not covet.” How can the Torah command us concerning a feeling? It starts inside the heart, as a kind of restless yearning for another’s things, but, as the story demonstrates, it quickly moves into the realm of action; indeed, because of his jealousy, Ahab violates three other of the 10 commandments as well, bearing false witness, stealing, and killing. Thoughts and deeds are intimately connected.

The first of the commandments is also a thought commandment: “I am the Lord your God.” And in a way, in violating that last coveting one, King Ahab also violated the first. What was the problem with his attitude? It was the problem of a king – namely, arrogance and ego-centrism. He thought he ruled the world, that whatever he wanted, he could have. His actions were a denial of the existence of a much grander King in this world.

King Ahab’s story is any coveter’s story writ large. Coveting is acting like a king, thinking that you somehow deserve what someone else has, that you are above others, that you have the power to decide who gets what in this world. As the Ahab story demonstrates, even thinking this way is extraordinarily dangerous.

The first commandment is the key to breaking such thoughts; it is the antidote to kingship feelings, reminding us of our small place in the universe and of a power that is beyond our comprehension. We are left with a sense of calm in place of the restlessness of coveting, and also with a feeling of comraderie for our fellow humans. If God is the only one above, then the rest of us are all down below together; none of us has complete control; we are all struggling along in the same boat, and so, in place of envy, we come to feel great joy at one another’s success.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Parashat Beshallach: On Singing

In this week’s parsha, the Israelites sing out to God after witnessing the wonders of the Red Sea. The word for song in Hebrew is shirah. The Sefat Emet says that shirah is connected to the word shurah, line. What happens when a person sings is that they draw a line between earth and heaven, a line between their own innermost spiritual point and its divine source. Singing is an expression of the understanding of this connection, of the feeling of having a spirit inside that wants to break out and rise up to be part of something larger.

When you sing, it actually does something to the world, says the Sefat Emet. When the Israelites sang at the Sea, they activated the songs of all the created beings in the Universe, the sun, the sky, the birds, the water, . . . Each creature has his own song to God and when the Israelites sang, the whole world sang with them. Perhaps that is why the layout of the Song at the Sea in the Torah looks like links of a chain; singing is a joining activity. It connects between earth and heaven and also between earth and earth.

The Israelites’ singing made an impression on the world, and also on the Torah, says the Sefat Emet. The layout of the Song in the Torah, like chains, is full of open spaces. What singing did was to open up the Torah, to open up its deep secrets for human discovery; singing is a kind of revelation, an uncovering of something deep inside oneself and deep in the Torah that is true and eternal.

“Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains sing for joy together!” (Ps. 98:8)