Not the Current Me – Parshat Mishpatim 5781

I used to be the odd ball kid. (OK, to be fair, I’m still pretty weird). As a child I had high emotions all the time and struggled in large group settings. I was awkward and bookish and not very popular. I simply did not fit in with my peers for most of my life. It wasn’t until I went to college and then graduate school that I finally found a group of people I could connect with in an honest and open way. I felt as though I finally found a group of people where I fit in and understood what it was like to be part of a community. Of course maturing in age and experience probably helped some too. Unfortunately, even as an adult I’ve found that many of the people I grew up with still see me as who I used to be. No matter how much I have personally grown and changed, to some people I will always be that same strange kid, but in an adult body. If nothing else, it certainly has me hesitant about attending my 20-year reunion this year, even if it’s only on Zoom. 

We all experience this to some degree as we grow and change throughout our lives. While our past genuinely does contribute to who we are as individuals today, we’re not who we used to be, and being reminded of our past, especially if it’s painful, can be devastating and destructive more than nostalgic.

Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this week, actually forbids dwelling on parts of a person’s past. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the Ten Commandments. This week, Parshat Mishpatim, focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and in relationships as complete, equal human beings.

In chapter 22, verses 19-20 we read, “Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The word for stranger is ger, which is also used for someone who has converted. It was from these verses that the sages forbade belittling sincere converts by reminding them of their idol worshipping days. 

The current version of who you are may appear quite different to those who knew you when. Similarly, people who only know us as adults may be surprised when they learn things about our former selves. The Torah reminds us not to hold on to who we used to be or to dwell on memories that no longer reflect reality, but to let the past go when necessary and support and welcome ourselves and others in the present. 

Stealing from God – Parshat Mishpatim 5780


It seems like every conversation with my children includes me reminding them to say “please” or “thank you” in some context. From their first moments on earth, we have tried to teach our children gratitude and manners, modeling by saying “please” and “thank you” ourselves as often as we possibly could to instill in them this very important part of what it means to be a kind human. While it may not be the most significant act of social kindness, there is at least a small measure of compassion that’s transferred from person to person every time you engage in polite exchanges like this. Someone holds the door open for me? I say “thank you” with a smile. I need something on a taller shelf and someone notices my struggle and offers to help? “Thank you.” When we use these words, we are acknowledging the humanity in one another. We are expressing gratitude for the gift of partnership. And I would argue that to walk through the world without this is to steal that gift. 

The Torah reminds us of this sentiment as we read Parshat Mishpatim. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. As we read last week, they have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, and interpersonal relationships make up the core of the laws set forth in this section of text. After first establishing a basic framework to guide our lives, the Torah then turns toward how we treat one another personally and professionally.

As the laws are being laid out, we encounter an odd situation in which an angel or messenger of God comes to greet the Israelite nation. During this encounter God describes what will happen: “You shall serve the Lord your God, and you will bless your bread and your water.” It is from this verse that the Babylonian Talmud understands that we are to bless our food before we eat it. This is the “please” so to speak. And of course we have the “thank you” food blessing afterward. The sages go so far as to say that anyone who enjoys the goods of this world without thanking God for them is like a thief.

When we take food or accept kindness from others, the Torah warns us not to take for granted the work that went into that one action. When we forget the common decency of manners, we “steal” the opportunity to recognize the good in each other and in God. When we stop acknowledging the gifts we’re given, we might start to think these things are owed to us, that they are automatic. Parshat Mishpatim teaches us that building a society based on manners means recognizing the kindness in others. When we do this, we are creating the world that God hoped we would be living in.

Personal Injury – Parshat Mishpatim 5779



Since becoming a parent I have learned that I need to look at every situation with my children through multiple lenses. When they’re hurt it’s easy to judge the physical injury. I can look for a bruise or a scrape, clean it off, apply kisses and a bandage (usually My Little Pony), and physically they’re on their way to healing. But that’s just a surface cure. If they fall and hurt themselves on the playground, that might result in a fear of the monkey bars for a while. I might have to offer extra guidance and support on the monkey bars, even if they had successfully conquered them prior to the fall. Or if they fell in front of their friends, they might be shy or embarrassed and need some time to recover their pride. There are so many situational layers in everyday life, and sometimes it’s hard to see them all.

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 to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the Ten Commandments. This week, Parshat Mishpatim focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and in relationships as complete, equal human beings.

The laws about injuries inflicted person to person are numerous. Chapter 21, verse 19 teaches that the perpetrator of an injury is required to pay for the treatment as well as the idleness that results. The Mishnah in tractate Moed Katan teaches us that a person who injures another is liable for five types of restitution: for the injury itself, for pain, for medical expenses, for absence from work, and for humiliation and mental anguish. Now that’s what you might call comprehensive health coverage. Life is complex, and the whole person must be taken into account as we work towards healing. In other words, physical healing is only the beginning of how we can support and guide one another through the challenges we face.

Recoupling – Parshat Mishpatim 5778


Maintaining intimacy in a marriage after having children can be challenging, and we’re not the first couple to face that challenge. It isn’t for lack of trying, but with two kids (one of whom slept in a Pack ‘N Play in our room for 12 months) plus my own early bedtime to try to compensate for the kids’ early wake-ups, it can be very difficult to find adult time to reconnect with one another. We often find that if we can steal away for a midweek lunch or happy hour on a Friday that we’re much more likely to be better partners in parenting and in life.

When we build relationships, whether with a life partner or with friends and family, we arrive at a mutually agreed upon set of guidelines. These “guidelines” may remain unspoken, but in a healthy relationship there’s at least a presumed give and take. No one likes to feel as though they are being taken advantage of or giving more than they are receiving in a relationship.

The Torah we read this week comes from Parshat Mishpatim. Parshat Mishpatim is based on the notion that actions inspire other actions. The text begins with laws dealing with Hebrew workers and the if/then sequence determining how long a worker stays with his or her owner and what obligations the owner has to the workers based on their own family status. The text continues to discuss laws dealing with accidental versus intentional harm caused to others, followed by the repercussions of stealing, and then ending with the covenant that God makes with the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Each of these laws is based on a reaction for an initial act, a balance in the relationship.

Chapter 21, verses 10-11 teach “If he marries another, he must not withhold from this one her food, her clothing or her conjugal rights. If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.” In other words, in a partnership, both partners are entitled to food (nourishment), clothing (comfort and warmth) and intimacy. These three building blocks maintain a relationship by encouraging growth, trust, and commitment.

The Torah this week reminds us that when we don’t take time to connect with each other, we “go free” from that partnership. We unbind ourselves from one another, which is the opposite of what a relationship should do. Whether it means taking time for a lunch date or even just a phone call where you don’t try to multi-task, the important relationships in our lives demand that we dedicate time to them to make them – and us – stronger.

To the Best of My Ability – Parshat Mishpatim 5777


My whole life people have thought of me as a “hard worker.” I’m generally the kind of person who shows up early, gets the work done ahead of time, and is on the next project. It sounds like a helpful trait to possess, and for the most part it is. However, it often means that I end up taking on quite a bit because I have the organizational skills to manage tasks and the drive to complete them in a timely fashion. This wasn’t an issue before I had children. Before Shiri was born, it meant I would work 15-hour days, come home, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day. A 70-hour workweek? No sweat! Unfortunately, what ended up happening was that eventually this breakneck pace left me tired, overworked, and resentful. It’s not easy learning how to set clear boundaries, and even though I have different limits these days, it’s still something I struggle with.

Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this week, entails laws of labor. We learn about the laws for having a Hebrew slave and maidservant and the laws of what to do with a murderer or one who injures others. The text continues with the various damages that other people might have claims against, the ways in which we work together to protect ourselves, and some laws about marriage. The text ends with the commandments regarding sacred times and spaces and the notion that we need to set aside time and space for sacred reflection.

At a time in our history when there’s a great deal of focus on minimum wage, unionization, who is eligible to work, and workers’ rights, it’s interesting to examine what the Torah’s laws have to say regarding the rights of workers.

At the beginning of the parshah we learn about the different ways one might acquire a worker. Specifically, we learn that the status in which one comes into his job (single, married, parent) is also the manner in which he should leave. In other words, someone who comes in single should be allowed to remain single. Interestingly, the word for single that the text uses is b’gapo, which literally means unmarried, but can be loosely interpreted as vigorous. If the slave was strong and able-bodied when he came to work, he was to be worked an appropriate amount so that he was still as vigorous when he left.

I think we can relate this idea well beyond the archaic practice of slave labor, meaning we’re not to work ourselves to the bone. The Torah reminds us that we must be aware of the breaking points of others and of ourselves. If you see a coworker struggling to keep up, you have an obligation to step up and offer help. If you find yourself overtired or overworked, take a step back to reexamine your own boundaries. It’s important to realize that when our abilities change, our goals and the ways we challenge ourselves can too.