Parashat Mishpatim 5781

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpatim
By Rabbi Enid Lader (’10)

In planning for this D’var Torah, I was set to focus on “Na’aseh v’nishmah” – “we will do and we will listen/understand.” (Ex. 24:7) Our Torah portion is filled with so many mitzvot – 53 to be exact; 23 positive imperatives, and 30 prohibitions. Moses shares this list with the Israelites and they say, “Na’aseh v’nishmah.” What does that mean? We’ll do these things first, and ask questions later? Even if we do not understand, we will do – and in the process of doing, understanding will come?

Then, a little over two weeks ago, I received the following text from one of the high school teachers in my congregation’s religious school:

Good evening, Rabbi! I was just walking three of our high school students through Mishpatim when we got to Exodus 23:23. While I was able to explain to them that the earlier portions about slavery, for example, were creating reform and actually giving the slave more rights/protections, I was at a loss for how to explain God’s angel annihilating other peoples in order to make room for the Israelites. Can you help me see this in a less troubling light so that I can pass such knowledge on to them?

G-d bless my high school teacher and G-d bless our teenagers! Their questions keep on coming, which is a good thing. He is so right – this is definitely a troubling passage. How can he help his students see this in a “less troubling” light? Should he? Is it possible that our quest to inspire positivity and help students – and adults – feel good about Judaism comes at the expense of having really difficult conversations about what Torah texts are [also] saying? Hiding these texts, or skipping over them, only achieves what I would call a “Swiss cheese Torah;” a Torah filled with holes. Should we be trying to make those “holes” more palatable? Or should we be struggling with them? What happened to “Na’aseh v’nishmah”?

Is it just us; is struggling with the text something new?

Hardly! In his article Relating Truthfully to Morally Problematic Torah Texts, covering a wide range of responses, Dr. Rabbi Norman Solomon writes that: “…The problem of unjust or immoral laws in the Torah and halakha is pervasive. This is true of any legal system that continues over time in radically different cultures.” He goes on to list the meta-halakhic laws of the Talmud, a series of “second order” principles, that modify the primary legislation and govern the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. This list includes: Mishum Eiva (“on account of hatred”) – in order to avoid carrying out actions that, though halachically correct, would offend people or cause strife, and Darkei Shalom (“the ways of peace”) – the opposite of Mishum Eiva, requiring certain behaviors, even if they do not line up perfectly with certain halakha, to avoid quarrels or to make people feel good. In his article, he also includes the late Rabbi David Hartman, who lived by example in two worlds at once: the world of ethics and the world of halakha – living with “numerous vocabularies and multiple frames of reference” and encouraging [us] to live with – and live out – our “own moral sense of decency.”

These troubling texts provide us with the opportunity to indeed struggle; a struggle that is not necessarily past-focused in order to justify the behavior of another era, but present-focused – to encourage us to become motivated to act today, to help make our world the best that it can be.

Indeed, perhaps these tough texts are perfect for our high school students and adults to grapple with, and to be upset with, and to be concerned about. And in the process of “doing” – of wrestling with these texts, they will come to “understand” and better appreciate their place and role in helping to repair their world. Na’aseh v’nishmah – We will do and we will understand.
Rabbi Enid C. Lader (AJR ’10) is the rabbi at Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the past-president of ARC (The Association of Rabbis and Cantors – the only joint rabbinical and cantorial professional organization in America), and is the treasurer of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.