The Choice is Yours – Parshat Misphatim 5773

When I was in high school, our principal would start everyday by reading from “Project Wisdom,” a series of quotations about specific values.  You might remember these from Levine and Friday morning Shabbat celebrations.  Each one ends with the line: “With something to think about, this is Rabbi Posen. Make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.”  Ultimately, while teaching about values and responsibilities, these little moments of wisdom reminded us each day that we all have a choice to make.  We can choose to have a great day, or we can chose to dwell on the negative.  We can choose to let go of resentment, or we can choose to let it fester.  Choice is a freedom we are afforded as Americans, and as we learn when we mature, we are held accountable for each choice we make.
Parshat Mishpatim, our parshah this week, shifts from the narrative of Moshe and the Israelites in the desert to a steady stream of laws and rules for living in the world.  The substance of thisparshah deals with criminal matters, humanitarian considerations, divine promises, warnings against assimilation, and the ratification of the covenant between God and the Israelites.  These laws come as a continuation from the Decalogue given in last week’s parshah and aim to teach the newly freed nation of Israel about their responsibility as a society.
The first set of laws focuses on laws of workers, referred to as “slaves” in the Torah.  These are not the same as slaves kept under Egyptian rule, but rather those who work for a fixed period of time to repay a debt or as a result of bankruptcy.  This model set forth beginning in chapter 21 of sefer Shemot tells us that workers are to be treated as human beings, and in these laws we read that consideration must also be given to a worker’s family.   
The Torah also provides us with a term limit for a worker, “A worker should serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free without payment.”  This verse teaches that emancipation is the right of the slave and that no compensation is due to the master.  At this time, a worker may decide whether or not they wish to remain with their master.  Some might be intimidated by the prospect of freedom; others would embrace it.  The choice is theirs. 
Just as the newly free Israelites were given boundaries by God with our calendar in parshat Bo, so too a worker is given the choice to decide a future after servitude.  The Torah teaches that to be fully human, people must take responsibility for their own lives.  Our “Project Wisdom” quote for the week:  Today, take the time to make a list of the principles you believe in, your own special rules for how you want to be the best person you can be.  Then think about how those principles help you make better choices.  With something to think about, this is Rabbi Posen.  Make it a great day…or not.  The choice is yours. 
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Pirkei Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) is our tradition’s original Project Wisdom. With familiar sayings like “The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness (1:2),” this part of the Mishnah is made up of a series of ethical principles that are less concerned with legal opinions than with aphorisms for how to live good lives.
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I for an I: Taking the Commandments Personally – Parshat Mishpatim 5772

Treat others as you wish to be treated.  It’s the golden rule and something we strive to teach our children to live by.  As part of our pledge to be a “No Place for Hate” school, we believe every person is created equal and in God’s image.  We remind our students about good manners and how to work together as a team.  We remind them of the 10 Commandments, which we read in last week’s Torah portion.  It’s the 10 ways in which we aim to create a society balanced between our relationship with God and our relationship with others.  This list of commandments is the central 10; however, the Torah is made up of 603 other mitzvot that we are to follow. 
When we see the number 613, it can be overwhelming.  As a general rule, teachers try to keep classroom rules to only five to seven.  Procedures and instructions for various activities might be numerous, but rules are to be a smaller number.  I can only imagine the look on my students’ faces if I put 613 rules up on the board and expected them to follow each one.  Perhaps this feeling of being overwhelmed with rules is why the Torah breaks down the mitzvot among all the weekly readings. 
This week we read parshat Mishpatim, which focuses on the mitzvot from human to human and how we treat one another.  The text centers on the basic human rights to which each individual is entitled.  The narrative also reminds us that at the core of our actions we are responsible for the welfare of others under our care, whether that’s our family, our workers or our neighbors.  We learn that there are basic human necessities that we are expected to help provide for others.  Food, clothing and companionship should be provided for any person who is left alone in our society.  We are also cued into the idea of “eye for an eye” and taught that the consequence must match the action. 
Specifically, in chapter 22 verses 20-23, the text teaches, “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  You shall not afflict any widow, or orphaned child.  If you afflict them in any ways and they cry to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My anger shall burn hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows and your children orphans.”  God reminds us that all mitzvot are about the relationship with ourselves, with God and with others.  By respecting ourselves we gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being.  By respecting others, especially those who have nothing (the widow, stranger and orphan) we make sure that we protect God’s creation.  In doing both of these, we bring respect, dignity and honor to God. 
The punishment that God gives for those who oppress the stranger and the orphan is that they too shall know this pain.  This is where we get the concept of “an eye for an eye,” and it begs us to put ourselves into the shoes of those around us and act in a way that treats each human being with dignity and respect.  The mitzvot of the Torah are the 613 rules to live by, but they all point to one basic principle: treat others as you want to be treated.  When it comes down to it, this week’s parshah asks us to take a look at ourselves and our lives and make sure that the same dignities that we expect are those that we help provide to others.  Each of us is created betzelem Elohim, in God’s image.  There is no place for hate, only for love when we cherish these mitzvot. 
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  the Torah speaks about Shabbat and the necessity of taking Shabbat as a time of reflection and relaxation on multiple occasions.  In chapter 23, verse 12, the Torah teaches “six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.”  This teaches that we have an obligation to make sure that our family, other works and animals are also given the opportunity to rest.   We are again reminded that our actions impact others and that we must always ensure that taking care of our own needs does not force others to lose their own rest.  This week, take the time to sit together with your family and just chill out.  You might be surprised by the results. 

I Accept! – Parshat Mishpatim 5771

With all of the electronic purchasing of music, books, and software, we are now accustomed to scrolling down a long page of tiny letters stating all of the legal ramifications and (lack of) liabilities that we are asked to read carefully before clicking the green “I accept” button or the red “I do not agree” button.  I wonder how many of us actually read all of the fine print each and every time we buy a song on iTunes or join a new mailing list.  How many of us read through an entire instruction manual before playing with a new toy or electronic device? 
If you read through the entire fine print or instruction manual it’s usually for one of two reasons.  Either you couldn’t figure out how to turn the piece of equipment on, or you were having trouble falling asleep.  As they say when adjusting to any new device, job or life project, there is a learning curve, and the best way to learn is through action. 
Our parshah, this week, parshat Mishpatim, falls at a momentous crossroads for the Israelites.  They have left Egypt, are on their journey, and have just received a full list of instructions on the basic ways in which they will live their lives.  Especially significant in leaving Egypt is the experience of freedom and choice, concepts which are completely new to them.   The Israelites, like children trying something for the first time, are impatient, eager to learn, and – to borrow a concept from childhood – eager to “wear their new shoes out of the store.”  They respond to all of God’s rules and requests by saying “Na’aseh V’nishma.”  We will do, and then we will understand. 
We find at the heart of this statement a long debate amongst educators over the benefits of learning and then doing or doing and then learning.  In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam writes: “Everywhere we find that learning precedes action, for learning brings about action, action does not bring about learning.”  Rambam holds that the statement should read “Nishma V’na’aseh,” we will first listen, learn, understand, and then put it into action.  John Dewey, in his masterpiece “Experience and Education,” wrote:  “Just as no man lives or dies to himself, so too no experience lives or dies to itself.  Wholly independently of desire or intent, every experience lives on in further experiences.  Hence the central problem of education based on experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.”  Dewey argues that “Na’aseh V’nishma” leads to more actions and deeper understanding.  In both cases, the scholars argue that experiences must be grounded in a strong foundation to bring forth meaning and understanding in our world.
The Israelites are experiential learners; they know that the only way they can grow and develop their society is by living in it, by engaging with the world, by doing.  They want to press every button on the cell phone to see how it works in order to understand how to use it.  We will do, and we will understand.  These two come side by side; we are constantly being asked to listen, to hear what is going on around us, and to experience the moment.
This section of text falls in the book of Shemot (Exodus) chapter 24, verse 7.  It is teaching us that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week we are obligated to explore our world and try new adventures, but we also must take the time to reflect, think back, and try to intuit reasoning and understanding of what is going on in the world around us. 
The work we are asked to do is to dive in and experience the world, to click (when appropriate) the green “I accept” button and move through the world with a keen sense of awareness every day that we will be able to act with goodness and with heart and to understand our world by listening to one another.
Family Discussion Questions: 
  1. Our “ethical covenant” emphasizes Shmiat HaOzen, being an attentive listener.  It is often difficult to stop “doing” and start “listening”.  How do you as a family maintain the balance of understanding one another and working together?
  2. When is it better to listen and then act?  What have you learned only through experiencing?