Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) For The Greater Good Of Society

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Editor’s Note: While Rabbi Address is lecturing on the road, we provide this encore d’var Torah from 2023.

The first Torah portion after Sinai, Mishpatim, goes directly to a recitation of social laws and norms. As you will see, if you review the portion, this is a detailed description of how a society should function; from ritual law to economic laws to the basic way we should treat others.

As I was reviewing this portion, I began to think about its impact on us and our generation.  Let me suggest that as we get older and tap into the reservoir of our life experience, we come to the realization that in order to be in the world we need to understand that our existence is just not about each of us as individuals. We live with people, we exist in a society and in order for that society to function properly, for the greater good, we cannot make life just about us. The portion is asking: “is there a higher moral and ethical power than myself?”

In his book on the thoughts of Mordecai Kaplan, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben notes Kaplan’s understanding that there is a higher law and authority than us. “God is understood as the power that establishes moral laws and expectations that transcend the arbitrariness of momentary human urges, no matter how passionately they are felt or expressed” (A Year With Mordecai Kaplan. Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben. P.69)

This statement and belief, drawn from this week’s portion, and indeed the entire concept of Torah, is especially meaningful. Many of us may recall that the Boomer generation was often labeled the “me” generation. Truthfully, there was a lot of that going around when we were younger, a belief that what I did had no impact on others. But we have lived a little, and for many of us we know that the world does not work like that. If we are only about us, then what are we? If we worship our self, we fall into idolatry, an idolatry of the self, which will end when we die.  A motif of this portion, I think, is a belief that by living in society, by adhering to the social fabric, we find our place and our voice, a voice and place than can transcend our brief life.

The portion reminds us that the world is about being involved with others and caring for others such as the widow, the orphan, the people who may not share our social status but are all creatures of God. We know this throughout our liturgy as we are constantly reminded to care for the stranger because we walked that walk ourselves. The fight against isolating or blaming the “other” also emerges from this portion as Rabbi Jonathan Saks reminds us: “Dehumanise the other and all the moral forces in the world will not save us from evil.” (Essays on Ethics. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. P. 113)

We are part of a larger whole. We exist in society, in community and the path to fulfillment and peace rests, as the portion tells us, within the social framework of the society. Within that framework we are given the choice as to our own future. Again, choose well.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Richard F Address

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