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The Moral Imperative of the Stranger

Man helps a stranger up the hill demonstrating tikkun olam

In Parashat Mishpatimwe find the Israelites in the midst of the Revelation at Sinai, experiencing the communal wonder and intensity of their encounter with God. Mishpatim, which means “laws,” dives into the details. The Revelations in Mishpatim are among the words Moses writes down on stone when he and Aaron ascend the mountain. Scholars call these laws the Book of the Covenant or Sefer HaB’rit. It’s the Torah’s first pass at the legal details that govern Jewish living.

D'var Torah By: 
Laws that Lead Us to Act with Compassion
Davar Acher By: 
Rabbi Matt Zerwekh

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Translated into English, the meaning of Parashat Mishpatim is “Laws,” but I would suggest we also refer to this Torah portion with the word rachmanut, “compassion.” The laws set forth in Parashat Mishpatim give us clear guidance as to our treatment of the segments of society to which we do not belong — the slave, the poor, the widow, the orphan. It point isn’t only that we should remember that we were once strangers in a strange land, for that only calls for empathy — an understanding of the other.

The External War and the Internal War

This week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei — meaning literally, "When you go out." It is a reference to violence and war. "When you take the field [literally, "When you go out"] against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive ... " (Deuteronomy 21:10).

This sentence is but a tiny portion of more than a thousand verses in the Tanach that deal with war. Our Holy Scriptures came into history in a world in which fighting was a normal and often necessary activity. The ancient communities of the Middle East were governed according to tribal custom and law, and each ethnic community was in a combative relationship with its neighbor. There was no United Nations in those days, no European Union designed to administer diverse people according to collective rules and laws. Some tribal federations such as the twelve tribes of Israel pooled their resources, but that was for protection rather than for advancing peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The harsh social-economic and political reality of the ancient world often triggered violent and deadly conflicts between communities and peoples, and it is rare that we read a comment such as is found in Judges 3:11: " ... and the land had peace for forty years."

D'var Torah By: 
Understanding Ourselves as Part of the Ein Sof
Davar Acher By: 
Beni Wajnberg

In deciphering the meaning of our portion's call to violence and war (Deuteronomy 21:10), Rabbi Firestone cites the 19th century Chasidic teacher, the S'fat Emet, who understood the opening sentence of the parashah as referring to the daily struggles we face in life. He quotes the S'fat Emet's contention that, "In everything there is a point of divine life, but it is secret and hidden. Throughout the days of the week we are engaged in a battle and struggle to find that point ... "

The Jewish People Comes of Age

The author Anita Diamant boldly pronounced, "This is a generation who have no use for the closeted Jew; the polite, blandly American and only privately Jewish Jews. No more Seinfeld; this bunch is Jewish inside and out" ("Minhag America," HUC-JIR graduation ceremony, April 30, 2008). Her words have not lost any of their resonance in the intervening years.

Alongside her words, we might place those of Rashi, as our Torah commentator of record, on this week's Torah reading, Parashat ChukatChukat begins with an explanation of the parah adumah, "red heifer," ritual. In short, the Israelites are commanded to produce a "red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid" (Numbers 19:2), slaughter it, burn it, and transform the ashes into a special "water of lustration" (19:9), used to render what has become impure, pure again.

D'var Torah By: 
Growing Up Means Taking Responsibility for Our Mistakes
Davar Acher By: 
Amy Schwartzman

Rabbi Skloot's reflections on Parashat Chukat are wonderfully insightful and inspiring. Indeed, this is a great time to be Jewish in America. Yes, we have traveled a long path to find the sense of security and self-confidence that allows us as individuals and as communities to openly practice our tradition, express our beliefs and just be ourselves. The example of the parah adumah (red heifer), along with Rashi and Rabbi Skloot's comments, hit home the idea of the importance of "owning" who we are and what we stand for.

Finding the Strength to Look Beyond the Horizon

Here's one of the few facts I remember from my high school physics class: Because the surface of the earth is curved, the farthest distance a person can see is about four or five miles. Everything beyond that, even with the best telescope, is obscured from view.

Four to five miles! For some people (not me) that's a short, early morning run. Our vision is so limited! Our perspective is so circumscribed. So much lies beyond our horizons at any given moment.

The same is true in our daily lives. So often we become accustomed repeated patterns and habits of mind that help us tread water, but move us no further. We tacitly accept the idea of inexorable fate — it's our lot to struggle, we can't change it. The weight of the present prevents us from imagining alternative futures. We lose sight of alternatives — of a different world beyond our present circumstances — a world just around the corner, beyond the horizon.

Moses appears to fall victim to the same trap in this week's Torah reading, Parashat B'haalot'cha.

D'var Torah By: 
How Can We Vanquish Fear to Make Way for Positive Emotions?
Davar Acher By: 
Geoff Mitelman

From an evolutionary perspective, fear makes a lot of sense. If you're not at least a little scared that a saber-tooth tiger might eat you, you're probably not going to survive long enough to pass on your genes. Aggression, too, is pretty obvious - we want to defend our territory and our precious resources from other people who might take them from us.

So negative emotions, which trigger the "fight or flight" response, are easy to understand. A harder question is why we have positive emotions. What's the role of happiness or play or joy?

Love Is Not Enough: The Demands of Relationship with God

Another name for this week's Torah portion is Parashat HaToch'chah — the portion of reproach. It contains a list of curses so terrible that traditionally the Torah reader chants them quickly and in a hushed tone so as not to call attention to them. And no one wants that aliyah! The curses are the punishment for disobedience, and they must have truly struck fear in the hearts of our ancestors.

The curses come just after the promise of blessing — if we follow God's ways. Rain in abundance, good crops, peace, victory, and fertility are all ours if, as the portion begins, ". . . you walk in my statutes and guard my commandments and do them" (Leviticus 26:3). We might mistakenly feel the parashah is about the classic "reward and punishment." But I see it differently. I see it as an apt closing for the Book of Leviticus, which began with a call to relationship — Vayikra — and ends again with a call to relationship. God's message can be interpreted as, "If you are a true partner with Me then our relationship will be healthy, but if you ignore Me, spite Me, hurt Me, and leave Me, how can we possibly go on together?"

D'var Torah By: 
Finding an Enduring and Absolute Relationship with God
Davar Acher By: 
P.J. Schwartz

The Book of Leviticus, the shortest Book of the Torah, comes to a close in this week's parashah, B'chukotai. While previous chapters in Leviticus painstakingly outline various laws and rituals that are essential to the newly formed Israelite community, the final chapters of Leviticus provide us insight into the relationship our ancestors had with God. As readers, we learn that following God's commandments would result in various blessings for our ancestors, while disobedience would result in harsh punishment. Biblical scholars describe this as retribution — obedience and faithfulness would lead to the promises of land, progeny, and wealth God established with Abraham, while straying away from God's commandments and being unfaithful would "wreak misery" upon the people (Leviticus 26:16).

The Roots of the Amicus Brief

Following the giving of the Ten Commandments in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim brings us a diverse collection of civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical laws. Included in the parashah is a section of text that has become relevant to a topic that is highly contested in our day.

Next month, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, a challenge to a restrictive Texas abortion law. It will be the first time in more than 20 years that the Supreme Court has heard an abortion case.

D'var Torah By: 
Being Present in a World of Distractions
Davar Acher By: 
Daniel J. Feder

In a world of distracted people and shortened attention spans, there is a verse in Mishpatim that helps us regain our focus. This striking verse is from Exodus 24:12: "The Eternal One said to Moses, 'Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there . . . ' "

The meaning seems straightforward in the English translation found in The Torah: A Modern Commentary1; it seems easy for our modern minds to comprehend. But this verse provides a great example of how a close reading of the Hebrew verse can yield a different perspective.

Remember: Do Not Forget!

I do a lot of reading in my line of work, and I often cringe when I come upon an oxymoron.

D'var Torah By: 
The Religious Jew
Davar Acher By: 
Adam Grossman

Over seventy laws are outlined in Parashat Ki Teitzei—the greatest number appearing in any Torah portion. Rules and observances have become central to religiosity.

Holy Cow

It is the most enigmatic mitzvah in all of Torah: the parah adumah, the "red heifer." If a person comes in contact with a human corpse, she or he must go for ritual cleansing.

D'var Torah By: 
The Paradoxical Effect of the Red Heifer
Davar Acher By: 
Barry Block

Rabbi Kushner elucidates a great irony: those who prepare the ritual for purification are rendered impure by doing so!

A Thin Line Between Passion and Zealotry

The final nine verses of Parashat Balak, the second parashah in this week's double portion, tell the story of Zimri, who brings a Midianite woman into the Israelite camp for the p

D'var Torah By: 
The New Generation: Thirsting Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Davar Acher By: 
Sheva Locke and Ron Avi Astor

In the first half of this week's double portion, Parashat Chukat/Balak, the Israelites are caught between a rock and a hard place.

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