February 18, 2009
Parshat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)
I’ve been a passionate admirer of Abraham Lincoln since third grade, when I read every biography I could grasp. My thoughts turn to Lincoln when I read the passage about slavery that begins this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, but more so now given the happy coincidence of the Obama administration’s beginnings and the bicentennial observance of Lincoln’s birthday.
With emancipation long behind us, the topic of slavery found in Mishpatim may sound antiquated. Yet it echoes in a flourishing worldwide slave trade and even in the disappointing passage of Proposition 8 on last November’s ballot, which put a stop to the flurry of same-sex marriages that had been legalized after the state Supreme Court declared such marriages constitutional last June.
Parshat Mishpatim comes as a collection of laws to add to last week’s Ten Commandments delivered in thundering drama at Mount Sinai. God continues building a legal and ethical foundation for the “treasured people” who keep affirming: All that God has spoken, “we will do” (Exodus 19:8, 24:3, 7).
The portion’s discussion of slavery begins: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him” (Exodus 21:2-3).
But certain complications might cause him to stay: “If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,’” then arrangements are made for him to remain in the household (Exodus 21:4-5).
Is it surprising that he would want to stay when freedom would mean losing his wife and children? Thus Torah — still in the early stages of the Israelites’ journey to freedom — puts love of family over freedom.
Despite strong support for same-sex civil marriage — including a majority of Jewish voters and numerous Jewish organizations — fear and misinformation led a majority of California voters to ban it. More than 18,000 marriages that took place in California from June 16 through Nov. 4 now hang in limbo while we wait to hear whether a state Constitution can legally be amended by a simple majority of voters intending to take away rights from a “protected minority” group. The court plans to hear arguments on March 5.
Twice in this week’s parshah we encounter the commandment given in some form more times than any other in Torah (36 times, by Talmud’s count): You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger; you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20).
Both verses in Mishpatim use the Hebrew root lamed-chet-tsadi — “oppress” or “press against” — used elsewhere in the Bible to mean pressing the door closed against someone (2 Kings 6:32).
Do not shut the door on a stranger (the ones who are different) — neither lock them out nor lock them in.
The second time the commandment is given in Mishpatim an additional phrase appears: Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of a stranger, you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9).
Often translated as “you know the feelings” or “you know how he feels” — but more literally: “you know the soul” (atem yadatem et-nefesh hager) of this so-called “stranger.” This one who is different from you? She is your sister; he is your son. You know this person. Or you could get to know this person if you can break through the fear. Do not close the door on them. Do not shut them out.
A less-noticed anniversary also falls on Lincoln’s birthday — the sad and frightening murder one year ago of Lawrence “Larry” King, an openly gay student from Oxnard. Brandon McInerney, now 15, is accused of shooting his classmate in the head. While McInerney’s story is not yet well known, the charges he’s facing include a hate crime.
Thirty-six times in Torah God encourages us, even insists, that we open doors rather than close them, become familiar/family rather than estranged/strangers, look for similarities and commonalities rather than differences and distances.
Lincoln ended his second inaugural address 144 years ago with words etched not only on the Lincoln Memorial but in the minds of most Americans: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…. ” Six weeks later he was shot and killed in a crime of hate, with repercussions felt even to this day.
One month ago, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, lifelong advocate for the rights of all, offered the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration, saying:
“Help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
“And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques or wherever we seek your will.”
In the memory of Lincoln and Lawrence, in honor of Obama and what he has called us to do, and with malice toward none, let us hear and let us do what God instructs and what our own hearts show us. Let us make choices on the side of love and inclusion. Let us choose to look into the soul of the other, rather than the other way. And let us choose to open doors, not close them.
Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles, online at www.bcc-la.org.