Posted on February 8, 2013 by Derek Kwait
The University of Pittsburgh’s Chabad House, run by two of my heroes, R. Shmuel and Sara Weinstein, is one of my favorite places on earth and one that has had an inestimable impact on my identity as a Jew. Once, when in late January 2011 they took a very rare Shabbat away, we students decided to take the opportunity to make Shabbat on our own. All the regulars took on different tasks; I volunteered to help set-up and give the dvar Torah below.
This week’s parsha is Mishpatim, or as its sometimes called, Where the Torah Starts to Get Really Boring, because this is the point where the Torah shifts abruptly from being about fantastic stories of our ancestors to being, except for Numbers, little else than lists of seemingly random laws. Even worse, this list comes immediately in the wake of the drama and excitement of the Revelation at Sinai—thunder, lightning, smoke, loud shofar blasts, the Voice of God, a nation trembling in fear, then…civil legislation! What gives?
Like any good speaker on Torah, I’m going to answer this question in a very roundabout way. Starting with this: Laws have been on my mind a lot this past week. Besides studying Mishpatim in preparation for tonight, in one of my classes we have been learning about Apartheid in South Africa and reading Kaffir Boy, the memoir of Mark Mathabane, a black man who grew up under that system in a horrible ghetto called Alexandra, just outside Johannesburg. When he was growing up, Alexandra was less than 1mi2 and had over 200,000 residents, one well of water, and no sewage system. Mathabane’s large family would go weeks eating very little food. Police raids were frequent, brutal, and random—once when he, his two younger siblings, and pregnant mother were very young, his father was arrested for over a year of hard labor for the crime of being unemployed. During the raids, police checked people’s passbooks, which they needed to live, and if anything in them was questionable or out of order, or showed some kind of infraction however minor, the holder could be separated from his or her needy family and arrested. This was only for blacks and mulattos. By comparison, whites, a 10% minority in SA, had one of the highest standards of living in the world. Whites were also barred from entering into black townships so they could never know nor care about the horrors their captive cheap labor force were living under.
All this was heavily enforced by strict laws, reminiscent in many ways to the Nazi laws which inspired Apartheid. So we see that law can do great evil. But Judaism teaches that all things are inherently neutral, so if law can do this much evil then it must also be capable of doing an equal amount good, and indeed it is, as Parshat Mishpatim demonstrates. Many laws in Mishpatim are as revolutionary today as they were 3,000 years ago—if you take something a poor person needs on collateral, you must give it back to him when he needs it. For example, if you take a person’s only pillow, you must still let him use it at night whether he has paid you or not. If a poor person owes you money, you must go out of your way to avoid her on the street to prevent causing her distress. Compare this approach to any given episode of The Sopranos. But I actually think the genius, the timelessness, indeed, the Divinity, of these laws is seen in the first set of laws listed here, the laws of slavery. If you read these laws, the first given to a nation of former slaves, you will find a whole different universe of slavery from the antebellum South. Hebrew slaves could not be kept longer than 50 years. Everyone, Hebrew or not, got Shabbat off. Yes, it was still slavery, and yes, it still sucked, but look at the seeds it planted. What sets these laws apart as the opposite of the Apartheid, Nuremberg, and Communist laws, why this law is still so beloved now so long after it can be enforced, while the latter laws are universally reviled less than 100 years after their invention is that, as the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi Lord Dr. Sir Jonathan Sacks notes, the Torah does not expect to change human nature over night like the failed Jacobins of the French Revolution, or the Nazis, Soviets, or Khmer Rouge did, it rather works with human nature, nudges its gentle influence into the natural evolution of human society and human consciousness, to produce a gradual, workable change over time. He writes, God “does not abolish [slavery]… but he so circumscribes it that he sets in motion a process that will foreseeably, even if only after many centuries, lead people to abandon it of their own accord.”
And this is another thing that sets this law code apart. Unlike man-made laws that seek to reorient man’s world-view and govern his life by stifling his natural ingenuity and crushing his spirit into blind submission, the Torah’s law, like any good teacher, empowers us to better act on our own. This is also seen in the slave laws—Rabbi Sacks writes that the reason God designed His law to work so gradually is “Because people must freely choose to abolish slavery if they are to be free at all.”
So we see that far from hindering freedom, good laws actually create and sustain it. This is why Judaism is so obsessed with law—you can have the most pure inspiration and all the good intentions in the world, but without a solid framework of laws to structure them, they are liable to become corrupted by human egos, mood swings, grudges, greed, and prejudices. As Mark Mathabane himself says, without the spark of the soul, “there is no right or wrong, just expediency. No God, just man: solitary, selfish, scared, and self-destructive.” Ultimately, all humans are corrupt and this is why Judaism has always maintained that God’s presence can be made most manifest in the physical world through a system of just laws enforced by people who genuinely fear God more than man. The world says “all you need is love;” the Torah says, “all you need is law.” This is also why Judaism considers laws and systems of justice so important that it is one of only 7 things it requires of non-Jews. As a R. Posner writes in a book Mordi gave me, Reflections of the Sedra, “Justice, Judaism teaches, is not our invention. It is the declaration of G-d’s will, our means of serving and approaching Him. We may become richer or poorer by adhering to its principles, but our standards of right and wrong will not be swayed by selfish considerations.” Rashi even goes so far to say that ideally, judges shouldn’t be paid since they will inevitably be biased towards whomever is paying them
The unique authority over the whims of man a Divine law can mandate is further and more explicitly seen in the Torah’s repeated injunction, seen for the first two times this week, to remember that you were slaves in Egypt and to act accordingly. For those areas the law can’t reach, or when you might be feeling lazy, just remember that you were a slave and God is everywhere and set you free in order to teach you how to do justice.
Which, in the very round-about way promised, brings us back to Sinai, where this concept of Divine manifestation through justice was first revealed. Sinai was the great flash of inspiration, the Revelation the great ideas it produced, but Parshat Mishpatim is what made them doable, what grounded the sound and fury, lightening and terror of the moment and turned it into a practical framework that can be incorporated into our day-to-day lives even thousands of years later. As R. Dianne Cohler-Esses, in a dvar I found online, put it, the laws of Mishpatim follow Sinai because Mishpatim is where the narrative stops being about our ancestors and starts being about us. Everything before this was only to establish authority and precedent for the law that follows—as God saved, liberated, and taught our ancestors, so too we, created in His Image, must do the same for others.
For me, one of the best things about God’s law is that it doesn’t just command us in civil things, it puts equal emphasis on fun stuff, like Shabbat, which is appropriately also mentioned in this parsha. Besides being the highlight of the week, Shabbat gives us time to refocus on how well we are fulfilling our obligations and teaches us kindness, as seen countless times in this house every week. As R. Jonathan Spira-Savett, another rabbi I found online writes, “It is significant that Shabbat, the command to rest each week in celebration of our own freedom, is [near the end of the list of mitzvot in the parsha]. Only when the strangers are welcome does our freedom have any meaning. Only when the hungry are fed does Shabbat, the pinnacle of Jewish spiritual life, have any significance.” If I didn’t know any better, I would think he was talking about the Weinsteins. So, how appropriate is it then that just like the Israelites were given concrete tools to take the inspiration of Sinai with them wherever they went in the parsha, this is the Shabbat where we students are given the tools to act on the inspiration we’ve received from the Weinsteins to make Shabbat ourselves.
Personally, I was really inspired by how many people were so eager to help out or participate in some way this week, and I think the reason so many people were so eager to be a part of this is also due to the Weinsteins’ inspiration, and here’s how: Last summer, R. Weinstein recommended me to attend American Friends of Lubavitch’s Living Legacy Conference in DC, to learn all about leadership; in the beginning of the conference, none of the roughly 50 of us, including at least one student from every Ivy League school except Brown, could define exactly what a true leader was, but a day-and-a-half later, we had experienced the answer—a true leader is someone whose mission is to eventually make him or herself obsolete. We see this in the parsha with God giving us laws to make His Presence and Will known in the world without constant miraculous intervention, and, this week, we see it in the Weinsteins through their absence, because through their example and guidance, I’d say we’ve managed to pull off a pretty spectacular meal so far and the best is still to come (and by “the best is still to come” I mean the kugel). So thanks so much to everyone who helped to make this possible and to everyone who came to give us someone to make it possible for. It’s truly a great honor to be here and be a part of this special night. And since this is the Weinsteins’ Chabad House, I’ll end with so let us continue to do good deeds of love and kindness to quickly bring Moshiach so that we should all be singing and dancing in the streets of Yerushalyim in the Third Beis HaMikdosh, Amen! Sela!