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Parashat Mishpatim

February 16, 2012

Getting by with a Little Help from our Friends

By Rabbi Peggy Berman de Prophetis

Parashat Mishpatim presents us with information overload-rules, rules, and more rules. And even though the Israelites promise that “all that the Lord has spoken we will do and obey” (Ex. 24:7), they sometimes need reminding, for they are no more and no less than imperfect, fallible human beings. And so are we all.

On reading Mishpatim this time around, Exodus 21: 28-29 called out to me: “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, the ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and, it kills a man or a woman-the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death.” Unlike some of the other rules in the parashah, this one requires a person to have given forethought to prevent conditions that might be hazardous to the life of another and take responsibility to protect others from possible harm.

Now I don’t have an ox or even a dog or a hamster (and how dangerous can a rodent be?), but I do have sidewalks-two in fact, since I live on a corner. My town-half of which is side-walked and the other half of which is not-has an ordinance that those sidewalks must be kept in repair by the property owner, and periodically yellow lines appear showing where repairs must be made. Since we are also a Tree City, you should understand that big trees in sidewalk verges can heave up a lot of flagstones, and despite root-pruning during sidewalk repair, they continue to grow and to push up our walkways. Understandably, I was not happy to see so many yellow expense-causing lines on sidewalks next to my home. So I postponed the inevitable. But then, I bumped into a friend who was also out walking, and, as we caught up, she mentioned how she had tripped on someone’s uneven sidewalk and had been badly injured. I was praying that our walk would not take us by my house.

But it did serve a purpose. I knew perfectly well that my sidewalks presented a potential hazard. I just needed a little help from a friend to remind me to do the right thing sooner rather than later. The next day, serendipitously, a pourer of concrete appeared on my block to fix someone else’s sidewalk and I hired him.

It’s important to keep company with good people-family and friends who can help you to remember important things you might otherwise forget or help you do things you lack the courage or energy to do, like fencing in your ox or fixing your sidewalks. Even our great leader and prophet Moses did not go it alone. He was hesitant to approach Pharaoh by himself. So, the Torah tells us, God provided him with Aaron as a partner. Then Moses enlisted the elders to help convince the people to leave the life they knew as slaves for a still-unknown life as free people.

All of us, whatever our age in years, should be elders. It is up to us to help set an example of living Jewishly, especially for our children. It is us up to us to model ethical and respectful living; it is up to us to show by our actions that the pursuit of justice is important; it is up to us to set an example of Torah study and an active and inquisitive mind; it is also up to us to give a nudge, to remind those we love of what they may have forgotten and what they need to do. It can work the other way too. I appreciate how I become a better person thanks to the gentle nudging of my family and dear friend.

And so, on this Shabbat Mishpatim, may we all be reminded to keep our oxen (whatever they are in our modern lives) under control and to help each other remember and apply the rules of justice, fairness, safety, and ethical living.

In particular, I want to express gratitude for my daughter Emily on this, the Shabbat of her adult bat mitzvah. She is always a help and a joy in my life. I am proud of her. Because of her, I am a better person.



Rabbi Peggy Berman de Prophetis is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Dover, Delawre. She writes frequently for the Jewish Voice of Delaware and speaks, along with other Delaware rabbis, on the weekly radio program The Rabbi Speaks.