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?

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.

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?