Whenever Duncan and I fly we have an ongoing bit about whose oxygen mask you put on first. I contend that “in the event of loss of cabin pressure” I will be freaking out, so he must help me with mine and then put his own on. However, the flight attendants tell us that we first have the responsibility of putting on our own mask before assisting others. The basic premise is if you’re not ok yourself, then you can’t help others. This safety message from the airlines does makes sense; it teaches us simply that it is our responsibility to help ourselves, and, after we know we’re taken care of, to turn our efforts to helping those around us.
This week we read parshat Mishpatim, the middle section of text in Sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt and to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the 10 Commandments and continuing with this theme for the future. Parshat Mishpatim focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation of treating each other in business and in relationships as complete human beings.
Given that the Israelites have just come out of slavery in Egypt, it is fitting that the text feels the need to give an alternate model to the Israelites as to how they should treat one another. Further, the Torah recognizes that in a new society there is also a need to establish laws of business. For example, in this parshah, the Torah clarifies how interest can be charged, and how, even as a businessperson or member of society, we must care for one another.
Chapter 22, verse 24 teaches: “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them.” The Torah is clear here, that all people are God’s people, both those with money and those without. Furthermore, according to the Shulchan Aruch, the code of law, we are to understand this phrase as “The poor among your relatives take precedence over other poor; the poor of your own town take precedence over the poor of other towns.”
As a community, we must put on our collective community oxygen mask before helping other communities with theirs because only when we are strong can we strengthen others.