On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah – Mishpatim: When Judaism Calls Us to Speak Out Courageously

Parashat Mishpatim presents a full catalog of laws, rituals, observance, and obligations that guide us in living a Jewish life of moral depth and courage. But, Rabbi Rick Jacobs asks, how do we, as liberal Jews regard these laws – which of them are we obligated to observe, and how? And how do we apply these teachings to urgent issues we face in today’s world?

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Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Mishpatim. He asks, how is Torah core to who you are? How does it call you? How does it make you speak up and speak out?  

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Mishpatim from the Book of Exodus, following the amazing and transformative and awesome revelation on Sinai.  

We have misphatim, which is a whole catalogue of laws, and rituals, and observances, and moral obligations that are in the specific of what it means to live a Jewish life of depth and courage. I'm going to focus our attention on the twenty-third chapter of Exodus in the first nine verses, because what I love about Misphatim is that it has all these -in a sense- Commandments, Laws. And the question for me is as a non-Orthodox Jew, as a Reform rabbi, as someone who takes the Jewish tradition so seriously, but also knows that much of our non-Orthodox community sees, you know, frankly, these as some nice suggestions. Like, if you get around to it, and you think you want to, and you find it compelling, maybe you consider a few of these ideas and moral and ritual and legal practices. But I'm also asking the question in this podcast [which] is: how can we actually be obligated even when we are non-Orthodox, and we have a different relationship to the corpus of Jewish tradition?  

So, let me just give you a flavor of the kinds of things that are included in this one little section of Misphatim, which is of course one section of the Torah. So the beginning of Chapter 23 of Exodus: "You must not carry false rumors. You shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong. You shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty. Nor shall you show deference to a poor person in their dispute." I've got to say, these feel like pretty relevant things. So I can't carry false rumors, I can't be the bearer of gossip. I can't be part of some kind of malicious witness, telling, you know kind of, non-truths or "fake truths," if you use the language of today. I can't just join with powerful people to do wrong. I actually have to stand up for the poor, but I can't show deference. When it's a matter of right and wrong, I've got to do right. These are, we would say, these are just good moral things. Do they really obligate me to do them, or can I just take them as nice suggestions? I think a moral life doesn't take moral teachings as suggestions, [but] as things that we're obligated to do. So even as non-Orthodox Jews, these are really compelling -- and sometimes very demanding and obligating teachings for us. [But] How we apply them – very, very differently.  

Verse four says, "When you encounter your enemies' ox or ass wandering, you've got to take it back. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and you would refrain from helping out, you've got to raise the animal and help." That's an amazing teaching. You know, you've got to help your enemy? Again, doesn't mean, in a, you know, in a war. It means the person with whom you disagree vehemently with, you've had bad interactions with. That person and their animal are in a moment of need -- you must help. I've got to say, that's something that I wouldn't necessarily do on my own. Maybe if you're the, you know, the Mother Theresa's of the world on this podcast listening in, you'd say "Well, I would do that. That's just who I am." I think part of what the Torah is doing here is telling us to do things that we wouldn't do if left to our own devices. And that's where it comes as a source and an obligating force to bring us to be the moral people that we could be, but that were not always, or not even mostly.  

"Don't subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes." Now some people say to me "You know what, the Reform movement, you guys are always involved in these contemporary issues. You're fighting for immigrants and refugees, and you're doing all this work with the poor. You know what about, you know, what about the Jewish tradition?" I say "Are you serious? What about the Jewish tradition? This is the Jewish tradition! Open up Chapter 23 of Exodus!" It's not, you know, some people take their rituals so seriously. Like kashrut and Shabbat, they're absolutely exacting. Something like this, helping the poor, you know, like, that's a nice thing to do. The Reform Jews will do that. Friends, these are about the things that really demand us to act in ways that may not be intuitive, but will change the world if we do. You know, it goes on to say "Keep far from a false charge. Do not bring death on those who are innocent and in the right." It says "Don't take bribes." I don't know about you, I just saw this news story this week about the President of Mexico took a hundred million dollar bribe from El Chapo the -- you know, again, I'm probably endangering myself talking about the head of the drug cartel in Mexico. But, you know, people giving bribes - that actually happens 

But here's where I want to really spend a moment with the ninth verse of Chapter 23. It says "You shall not oppress a stranger. For you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt." This is an unbelievable and powerful teaching. I just would say that last February, I was in Israel for the board meeting of the Jewish Agency for Israel, where I'm privileged to serve. And we actually went the Saturday night before the beginning of the meeting. On Sunday, we went to a protest in south Tel Aviv. We went with an amazing group of young leaders from our Reform movement, beautifully organized by Andrew Keen and Jeremy Kroenig, and a whole team from our Arzenu delegation, and we took all of our youth leaders and the leaders of the IMPJ, [and] we all went to this protest and we held this verse in Hebrew, in the protest. And amazingly, of course, it says a number of things. Not only not to oppress the stranger, it says here's why: not just because of this verse, but because you know - v'yidaatem et nefesh ha'ger - you know the heart of the stranger. This is about our experience in history. If we are the people who have been slaves in Egypt, have been throughout history the other, the stranger, we should learn from that experience. That should give us empathy so that the text calls us, and our history calls us, and we actually have to stand up. So we were standing up on behalf of the asylum seekers in Israel. These are mostly Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have come to Israel -- many of them illegally, through an open border, marching across the desert to get to freedom to save their lives, oppressed at home, finding temporary refuge. The State of Israel was struggling, and still is struggling, [with] what to do with these some 40,000 of them in Israel. And we were protesting that, the State of Israel, because of this text from Exodus, and because of what our history has taught us and the empathy we have learned, have to do the right thing.

So the moment that was dramatic - we were at the Jewish Agency Board meeting, and Natan Sharansky, who was then still the head of the Jewish Agency, (now it's Bougi Herzog who's taken over) but Natan, who was very reticent to bring anything to the Jewish Agency Board that is critical of the current policy of the State of Israel, brought the possibility that we would critique the government's potential actions on the subject of the asylum seekers to simply send them back to Africa. And for some of them what would be not only oppressive circumstances, but for some of them it would mean death. And we're having this debate. I spoke up, others spoke up, and then we were about to take a vote of our Committee on Jewish Unity. And I noticed that one of our young delegates, a young woman from northern California, put her hand up -- she wanted to say something. And Natan Sharansky couldn't see her. So I kind of gave them a signal, like, turn around there's a hand up. He turned around. He loves young leaders, [he] asked her to come forward [and] sit in his seat. And she made the following points:  

She said, "I have learned my Jewish tradition, have internalized it. Last night, we were standing with a group of very, very passionate Zionists in south Tel Aviv, standing up, and we were reminding us that we have an obligation to not just treat the stranger well, but never to oppress them." And then she invoked the history of our people, and this 20-year old Reform Jewish leader from northern California, from Betham in Los Altos Hills, just left the whole group speechless. These are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular, from every part of the world -- Australia, Europe, Israel, North America. And then, Natan asked for a sense of the group, how they felt. And her explication of this verse and our history convinced this very diverse, often disagreeing group of Jewish leaders, that we had a moral obligation to stand up and speak out on behalf of the rights of these asylum seekers in Israel. I tell you that story because there are urgent, urgent issues that grow right out of Mishpatim. They are contemporary and they are timeless. The way that the outsider, the other, is often ignored and not cared for or defended -- that's not our Jewish tradition. This is. 

So as you're sitting wherever you're sitting, listening to the podcast, or you're out walking for an early morning walk. We're not Orthodox Jews, almost all of us on the podcast; but these teachings are absolutely core to who we are and who we want to become, to live lives of moral depth and courage. So I ask us, it's not about you know halachah versus something else. These are our traditions. This is our sacred text. This is our sacred history. We are called to lead. So today and tomorrow, can I count on my podcast listeners not just to listen, but to internalize, "You know the heart of the stranger"? You know what our experience in our texts teaches us. So be like that courageous college student in Israel. Speak up, speak out, and live these timeless teachings.  

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to write and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.  

Until next week -- l'hitraot