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.

Stole My Heart – Parshat Mishpatim 5776

Stole My Heart

The holiday of roses and candy hearts is a week away, and though Valentine’s Day got its start as a Christian liturgical celebration, this week’s Torah portion coincidently contains some interesting points about intimate relationships. Specifically, the Torah discusses how proper relationships should be formed and provides a literal explanation of a “stolen heart.”

In last week’s parshah, among the laws the Israelites received to govern their society were the Ten Commandments. A handful of those ten, including the prohibition against stealing, are applicable beyond the religious setting and have a place in our secular laws as well, but how far does the definition of “stealing” actually reach? Does is have any application in relationships?

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. 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.

In particular, chapter 22, verse 15 turns to the ways in which intimate relationships might be formed. The Torah teaches, “If a man seduces a virgin for whom the bride-price has not been paid, and lies with her, he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price.” That is to say that the Torah views this form of seduction as monetary theft, not just emotional theft. For our modern sensibilities, we might extend this to mean we shouldn’t deceive our potential partners. By not sharing who you truly are or being honest about your intentions and expectations, you have “stolen” the opportunity for others to make their own informed decisions. In fact, this concept is referred to in our tradition as gneivat da’at, or stealing someone’s opinion.

What better time than in a nation’s infancy to establish laws requiring the Israelites to be open, honest, and true to who they are? A society built on deception (like a relationship built on seduction alone) doesn’t adhere to the standards set in our parshah and cannot thrive. Instead, God creates a guide for us to build our community on mutual respect. Unfortunately, “We mutually respect each other” doesn’t quite fit on a candy heart.

Put On Your Mask First – Parshat Mishpatim 5775


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.

Chain Reactions – Parshat Mishpatim 5774

As a new parent, I am acutely aware of sleep schedules, loud noises, and the rhythm of life.  I know that my stress or anxiety might have repercussions when it comes to my daughter’s mood.  If I bring home anxiety, it might stress out my husband, which might lead to an argument, which will wake the baby.  Or perhaps something or someone catches the attention of our labrador Stanley, and his bark wakes up the baby.  Never before have I been more aware of the relationship between individual actions.

Parshat Mishpatim, our Torah portion this week, 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 harm versus intentional harm caused to others, followed by the consequences of stealing, and then ends 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.

In the midst of laws about how to treat Hebrew workers, we receive a decree about Shabbat.  The text reads in chapter 23,verse 12 “Six days you will do your work and on the seventh you will rest so that your ox and donkey will rest and your maidservant and the stranger will rest.”  This verse expands on the motivation expressed earlier in the Torah for a day of rest on the seventh day.  Moreover, the text gives us a new reason to rest.  In the Decalogue in last week’s parshah, the reason for resting is given as an imperative to be like God; we rest because God rested.  In parshat Mishpatim the reasoning goes beyond connection to God.

The text teaches us that rest is a necessity not just for us as individuals, but for the land and for our community. Verse 12 reminds us that if we don’t rest, others around us won’t rest.  Think back to a time when you shared a bedroom, a college dorm room, or camp bunk. The rhythm of life in these situations depended on each person being respectful of the other’s needs.  If you had work to finish late at night, you might have used a different room or the computer lab instead of insisting that the lights stayed on all night, keeping your roommate up.  This is what the Torahis talking about this week.

In Biblical times if the master didn’t take a day to rejuvenate, then the workers would feel the need to continue working, and when this happened no one felt healthy or rested, and chaos would quickly ensue.  Our actions cause reactions.  We must rest so that others will also have the ability to rest.   We are asked to give one another a break every week, understanding that every human being and living thing needs to rejuvenate their spirit. This week we are reminded once again that our decisions have meaning well beyond our own lives; they can have an impact on the world.  What positive impact will you make?