Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seeking Justice and Fairness - D'var Torah on Exodus Chapter 23, Verses 1-9 (Mishpatim) - February 13, 2015

  •     Last week, the Torah presented what many see at its centerpiece: The Ten Divine Utterances – ASARAH HAD’VARIM – better known as the Ten commandments.
  •       The first 4 of those commandments set standards for our obligations to God; the fifth commandment declares what we owe our parents, who, as God’s earthly creative partners, made us; and the last 5 commandments established parameters for how we should act towards one another.
  •       The sections that follow, often known as the “Book of the Covenant,” do more of the same, covering rituals, and interpersonal issues related to how we humans have the potential to help and harm one another.  And when we cause harm, we are liable for what we have done.
  •       But chapter 23 of Exodus begins with something different. 
  •       I could call it the Torah’s “moral calculus for equal treatment, truth and acceptance” – perhaps, because it uses the root TZEDEK, righteousness, at least twice, this section offers us a “compass of righteousness.”
  •        Richard Elliott Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah offers a no-nonsense translation of this 9-verse section that I will read from the Torah tonight – so I will use his rendering of this passage as my starting point.  
  •       Verse 1:  YOU SHALL NOT BRING UP A FALSE REPORT.  DO NOT JOIN HANDS WITH THE WICKED TO BE A MALEVOLENT WITNESS.  This seems so simple and clear, but it’s not, by any means, always  understood or followed.  False reports are widespread when so many people believe that they possess the “real” story about an issue.  We might say that, when it comes to the news on television, balance comes from watching several networks rather than just one.  In our communities, the truth depends on the person who is telling it.  We may not know that something we are passing along is true or false, and if we don’t know, we shouldn’t pass it along.   The second half of the verse is about court proceedings and about the court of public opinion.  It says that we shouldn’t go along with someone whom we know has evil intentions and who will require us to engage in publicly declaring what we know to be false, technically leading us to commit libel or slander.  That includes accepting a statement as true without digging deeper to see that alleged connections that were made were totally false.  That happens too often. We have to be careful, and, especially, as listeners, we have to be discerning about what we hear, committing ourselves to seek our own verification so as not to become malevolent witnesses ourselves.
  •       VERSE TWO: YOU SHALL NOT BE FOLLOWING MANY TO DO BAD. AND YOU SHALL NOT TESTIFY ABOUT A DISPUTE TO BEND FOLLOWING MANY, TO BEND IT.   Here I feel that Richard Elliot Friedman’s own words say it best: “Do not follow a group, a crowd, a majority if what they are doing is wrong.  Do not do it for acceptance, for the secure feeling of being in a group, or for the sadistic pleasure of being able to exclude someone. It is easy to be hurtful in a group.   And it is easy to keep silent when one’s group does harm – or when its leaders do harm from their position, which  derives its power from the group. All of this is forbidden.  It is utterly inconsistent with the Torah’s conception of what a human should be and how one should behave towards other human beings. This comment should be unnecessary.”  In addition to that observation, Friedman noted the use of the word “bend.”  To “bend following many” means that justice is being bent out of shape if you follow the majority just because they are the majority.  The use of the word “bend” two times reminds us how serious it can be to bend a dispute away from a just and fair decision and conclusion.
  •       VERSE 3: AND YOU SHALL NOT FAVOR A WEAK PERSON IN HIS DISPUTE.  We shouldn’t bend the law because of bad motives or good motives – where, in this verse, the good motive is to help a person who has little power in society.  Everyone needs to be seen as equal under the law.
  •       VERSES 4 AND 5: IF YOU WILL HAPPEN UPON YOUR ENEMY’S OX OR DONKEY STRAYING, YOU SHALL BRING IT BACK TO HIM. IF  YOU WILL SEE THE DONKEY OF SOMEONE WHO HATES YOU LYING UNDER ITS BURDEN, AND  YOU WOULD HOLD BACK FROM HELPING HIM, YOU SHALL HELP WITH HIM.   Most translations say that the “him” should be translated “it” and means the ox or donkey.  Friedman believes that “him” means your enemy – the one who hates you.  By assisting the animal, you are helping your enemy.  This is the closest the Torah comes to telling us to love our enemies.  But it doesn’t tell us to go quite that far.  This text realizes that we may not be able to love our enemies….so it suggests that we show them consideration and respect.   If we can do that, we would, according to the Torah – and God – be doing quite well.   Friedman puts it this way: “the main point is that one must be of help, even to someone who bears ill will- perhaps ESPECIALLY to someone who bears ill will.”  
  •       VERSE 6: YOU SHALL NOT BEND THE JUDGMENT OF YOUR POOR IN HIS DISPUTE.   The Hebrew really does say YOUR poor – the poor among Israel are the responsibility of all Israelites.  It is everyone’s duty to be sure that the poor get a fair hearing, which may not happen because of who they are.  As was said before, justice should not be bent towards them just because they are poor.  But this verses very clearly states that no one should bend judgment against them. 
  • ·      VERSE 7: YOU SHALL KEEP FAR FROM A WORD OF LIE, AND DO NOT KILL AN INNOCENT OR VIRTUOUS PERSON, BECAUSE I SHALL NOT VINDICATE A WICKED PERSON.   What if someone said over and over that a person of impeccable integrity was a liar or was unethical just because of a mutual disagreement on a particular political or moral issue, and not because of any real action that violated a rule?   It happens all the time, and due to the way in which information gets shared these days, it is hard to overcome a false accusation.  It takes on a life of its own.   When someone loses his or her life or reputation because of trumped-up charges or twisted truths, the perpetrators will be responsbible for an act for which “I am sorry” or a mere correction in a publication will not suffice.
  •       VERSE 8: AND  YOU SHALL NOT TAKE A BRIBE, BECAUSE BRIBERY WILL BLIND THOSE WHO CAN SEE AND WILL UNDERMINE WORDS OF THE VIRTUOUS.  In more than one passage, the Torah notes what bribery can do to our vision. We no longer form our views based on what we really see, because we can’t see at all.  We only see what the person who bribed us wants us to see.  And we won’t be able to hear either, because the words to which we will listen are no longer based on open and actual truth.
  •       VERSE 9: AND YOU SHALL NOT OPPRESS AN ALIEN – THAT IS, A STRANGER – FOR YOU KNOW THE ALIEN’S SOUL, BECAUSE YOU WERE ALIENS IN THE LAND OF EGYPT.    As members of a Jewish community, we came to be here through many paths.  Some of us are here because of the immigration of generations before us and birth into a Jewish identity or choosing a Jewish identity later in life.    It doesn’t really matter how we came to be here.  We know what it means to come from somewhere else, to be a bit different, and it can give us a special insight into the feelings of those who are newcomers or who are cast aside for one reason or another.  It is our responsibility not to add to any type of oppression, but to help to create an understanding of the stranger who might hope to become a community partner and a citizen.  Based on all of the verses that preceded this one, we are called upon to act based on principles of justice and fairness, without malice, with consideration for everyone, and without an intention to undermine any person.    May this be at the foundation of all that we do within our community and our world. 

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