Posted on January 30, 2011 by Tamara Frankel
I hope you are all well and had a good week. This past week was my first back at Pardes after the semester break, so it has been a bit of an adjustment: new classes, new people and new schedules. Having said all that, I’m very excited to be back in the Bet Midrash!
In addition, last week I traveled to Hebron to learn about Palestinian life there and some of the challenges facing this city as part of a seminar I’m participating in with Encounter. Part of my experience there was meeting a family whose ancestors had saved a group of Jews in Hebron during the 1929 massacre. Another part of the trip included a walking tour of the Old City of Hebron and learning about their interaction with settlers and IDF soldiers, and generally some challenges facing the Palestinian community there.
This past week’s parsha, Mishpatim, speaks about the first series of laws given to the Jewish People. (These laws are understood by some commentaries to traditionally have been given at Sinai.) The parsha is introduced is as follows: (Ex. 21:1)
א) וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם
1) Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them.
Reading this verse, I was struck by the phrasing “before them”. Why does the Torah go out of its way to say that these “ordinances” are to be given to the Jewish People? Aren’t they the assumed target audience? It would seem that the language of “before them” is redundant! But as the first law is recounted in the parsha, I began to glean some meaning from this funny wording.
The next verse describes the laws of Israelites (Hebrews) owning other Hebrew slaves:
ב) כִּי תִקְנֶה עֶבֶד עִבְרִי, שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים יַעֲבֹד; וּבַשְּׁבִעִת–יֵצֵא לַחָפְשִׁי, חִנָּם
2) If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
Of all the places to begin and all the possible laws to share with the Jewish People, we begin with that of Hebrew slaves?! Didn’t we just leave bondage in Egypt? Why are we taking slaves from our own communities? Has enough time elapsed for the Jewish People to have recovered from the trauma of Pharaoh’s tyranny?
I would like to suggest that the Torah is very conscious of the rawness of this trauma for the Jewish People. God wants the Jewish People to understand that to be a ‘servant of God’ in its highest form is to be sensitive and aware of the world around us and elevate it as much as possible. Sanctification of the mundane is our charge. As such, God summons the Jewish People to return to their own trauma in Egypt and use their self-knowledge, their pain to open themselves to others and empathize with the Hebrew slaves. If an Israelite chooses to take his fellow as a slave, he must treat him with dignity and sensitivity.
In a workshop I didon Friday run by Encounter, Ilana Sumka (Executive Director) shared with us some of her training in trauma rehabilitation. Ilana taught us that a person often needs to search inside him/herself for inner resources–be they courage, faith, love, openness and the like–and draw on them in order to confront their trauma. And when the trauma is too overwhelming and too difficult to face head-on, a person must spiral back to his/her inner resources and draw strength from there to re-engage with trauma and eventually work toward rehabilitation.
I think this model is very much the “music behind the words” (to borrow Daniel Silberbusch’s language) of last week’s parsha. To own a Hebrew slave requires an understanding of self of the owner: s/he must get in touch with her/his recent bondage in Egypt and recall the pain and suffering experienced, so as not to inflict that on another person. Sanctifying this relationship of master and servant goes back to our primal mission of elevating the mundane. This is what Nachmanides writes in Leviticus when he explains the commandment “Be holy for I am Holy, I the LORD your God am holy”. (Lev. 19:2)
In reflecting on my experiences in Hebron last week, learning about the struggles of Palestinian life and seeing Israeli soldiers guarding their posts nearby, I hope for a time when Jews and Palestinians of Hebron can search deep inside themselves and use their inner resources to acknowledge and rehabilitate their trauma. Then, and only then, can all parties channel their self-knowledge and understanding of their challenges to speak to the other and be sensitive to his/her needs, wants and maybe even dreams!
I challenge us all to incorporate this 3-step process into many aspects of Jewish practices, our interpersonal relationships, and those larger and beyond the Jewish People!
In the language of the parsha, if I can put my experiences “before” myself (using steps 1-2 listed above), then I can engage with the other (step 3).
I wish all of us Behatzlacha (“Much Success”) in this endeavour!!