Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mishpatim: Sinai's Holy Thunder vs. Mundane Civil Law


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“And these are the rules you shall set before them [i.e., the Israelites]” (Ex. 21:1)

            According to Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), the “and” connects these civil laws (between human beings) in Mishpatim, to the Ten Commandments (between human beings and God), in Yitro, the parsha/Torah portion which preceded, and both categories of mitzvah are equally holy. What is significant is that the laws in this parsha, Mishpatim, deal exclusively with civil matters—property rights, indentured servitude, working animals, road construction, etc. How can we find holiness in these mundane matters?
The answer is that there cannot be local or world peace without paying attention, not only to our relationship with God, but also with our fellow human beings. One cannot pray three times a day to God, keep kosher, and keep Shabbat, and then go out and cheat one’s fellows in business. An upright, righteous person cannot shut one’s door to a deserving stranger; consider the example of Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, whose favorite mitzvah/commandment was that of Hachnasat Orchim, Welcoming Guests. R’ Yehuda Leib teaches that it is of higher merit to repair and maintain one’s relationships with humanity than with God.
Why so? Because God forgives humankind their shotcomings, while people in our nation and world, sadly, often dislike, even hate one another, usually because of jealousy, suspicion, and ignorance. This is why this parsha, Mishpatim, with its down-to-earth civil laws, has to follow Yitro, with its emphasis on otherworldly Sinai.

Sinai was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: it featured thunder and lightning, God and angels on a mountaintop, and a Torah gifted from heaven. It was wondrous and beautiful, but hardly practical on a day-to-day basis. To be a good and proper Jew, we must have a down-to-earth religion, which we can practice in the real, everyday world, where our Torah can offer guidance. Are you tempted to steal in your business, cheat your workers, write down a false number on your balance sheet? Look into your Torah for divine and practical guidance, and you will not sin.
These laws of Mishpatim may have grown old, some of them—we no longer practice slavery, thank God, and the oxen of old have been replaced by machines—but the principles behind them still apply. If we deal honestly and justly with our fellow human beings, it does not matter if we are humble citizens or occupy the highest office in the land. Do mitzvote, give Tzedakah, Charity, and strive for Tikkun Olam, Improving the World. Finally, at the End of Days, there will be a Judge and a Judgment, and He will, one day, call us before the Highest Court there is.

Works Cited

Green, Arthur (trans. & ed.). The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger. Phila., PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1998. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Yitro: A Cup of Barley Beer with Korach


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            Come in, Stranger! Take a cup of barley beer from me, and sit here by the fire. Who am I, do ye ask? I am Jethro, Chief Judge and High Priest of Midian, and I practice courtesy and hospitality—what, d’ye think I would let you freeze out there, in the desert night? Baal’s my witness, I would never do such a thing! Why, if my boy Moses were here, I would have him slaughter a sheep, tan its hide, and prepare you a fine, warm sheepskin to wrap yourself in, I would! But he’s gone, back to Egypt, to free his people, as he said….

            A fine boy—I mean, son-in-law—he was, too—married him off to my daughter, Zipporah—there she sits, in the corner, with my grandsons, Gershom and Elazar! Gershom is the five-year-old, and Elazar is the baby she is nursing—oh, I’m sorry Zippy; my fault—please pardon me. Ha! What a fool I am! Ne’er ye mind—I’ll just help myself to some more beer—join me, Stranger?

            Listen to the old East Wind, out there—I heard tell that it blew strongly when Old Man Pharaoh Ramesses II got his nose bloodied this morning—lost his cavalry, he did, and haven’t heard from him, either! Something about a flooding at the Sea of Reeds—did the mighty Pharaoh drown? Ha! And my boy, Moses, there in the thick of it!

Zippy, did ye hear? Are ye finished with Baby Prince Elazar, there, yet? Oh, you’ve got to be about putting the boys to sleep, then—Gershom, my precious grandson! Have you a kiss for Gran’ther, then? There, there, that’s a good boy—go to sleep, and Osiris guide your dreams—ha, ha!

            Well, now it’s quiet—let me lie back here, among my pillows, loosen my belt, a bit—ah! What of you, Stranger? Where are you from, of what country, what nation? Sure, that’s a lot of questions, but I am a curious fellow—being a village judge and parson, it’s inevitable. A refugee? From where, if I may ask? Oh, Egypt? What, a slave? Of what name?

            Korach? A Hebrew? Well, why’d you leave the host of the Exodus? Didn’t Moses free the lot of you, and didn’t ye depart in a bunch? Of course he did, of course—but you don’t like him? Well, don’t you think that you would be better off, by staying with the people, and working things out with Moses, your God-given leader? I am a great believer in talking things out—just the way we’re doing now. Why, when my son-in-law Moses—yes, I know you don’t care for him; you said the same, just before—was working on freeing the people from Egypt, he came for a visit to us.

            “How do you spend your days, My Son-in-Law?” I asked him.
“I work miracles, but I also judge the people, when they have legal disputes,” he said.
“Do you have help?” I asked.
            “No, Father,” he said, “I do it all myself, and if I have a problem I cannot handle, I bring it to the Lord God.”
“Well, Moses, my son, why don’t ye appoint sub-judges, and sub-sub-judges, and make it easier on yourself?”

And he took my advice….

            More beer? Of course, Friend Korach….What’s that? Ohoo, you’d like to be a judge, as well? Well, why don’t you go back to the camp of ex-slaves, and present yourself to Moses, and try to work it out, so that you can be helpful to him? That might be a good thing….Yes, I believe it would be helpful. You’re a Levite, too? Capital idea! Capital! He’s a Levite, you’re a Levite, and that way, the Israelite folk would know who to come to for judgment. Well and good.

            Where are the Israelites, now? I heard they had a battle with Amalek, but came out, all right, and are on their way to Mount Sinai. Yes. For some sort of meeting with their God. Never heard of such a thing, before. Truth is, my wife and I, and Zippy and the boys, we’re all thinking of meeting them at this Mount Sinai. Never before met an Invisible God. Might be something to see. An Invisible God, I mean. Care to come with us?

            Oh, you can’t stay; must be leaving. Well, let’s have the women pack you a bite to eat, then. Zippy! Wife Athaliah! Put a pita and some cheese into a bag, won’t you, for Friend Korach, here? He’s off into the desert cold, he is. Can we give him a wool blanket, perhaps? Brr! It is cold, out there….

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Beshalach: Israelite and Egyptian Camel Rustlers, 1338 BCE


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: c. 1338 BCE. A Desert campfire, shortly after the Splitting of the Reed Sea. Three men sit around, sharing a flask of honey-mead liquor: one, a Stranger; Elazar, a Hebrew, and son of Moses; Hotep, an Egyptian. Elazar the Hebrew speaks.

            Could I beg another drink of your mead, Stranger? Ah! That warms both body and soul. I thank you for your hospitality on this cold wilderness night; your fire is excellent for keeping back both jackals and wolves in both animal and human form—not that we cannot protect ourselves. Who are we? My name is Elazar, and I am a Hebrew; my boon companion here is Hotep, an Egyptian; my God Shaddai, and his god, Ra, brought us together to protect each other, here in this vast wilderness, through which we wander.  

How do we get by? Oh, scrounging, we call it: hunting a lost rabbit here, trapping a stray quail there…. Sometimes, if we come upon a desert caravan—Ishmaelites, Girgashites, or the like—we cover our faces with our hoods and “attach” ourselves to them, usually after the sun has set, pretending to be camelskinners, and manage to steal away in the night, with a well-laden camel or donkey or two—ha!

            No, you needn’t fear that we will steal from you: we are bulging with loot from our last camelskinning venture, and will not touch your goods. Besides, I can see the gleam of a bronze dagger on your belt, a rounded, sharpened copper scimitar in a sheath on your back, and a well-worn, rounded shield hanging from your camel’s saddle—I know my limits, and Friend Hotep behind me—yes, he sits behind me; we look out for one another—cannot match all that weaponry. All I carry is a two-finger-long knife and a sling; all he has is the ability to wrestle a man, which he learned back in Egypt, his native land, where he trained as a Shalish, the archer-spearman in a chariot, in the Royal Egyptian Cavalry, “Wings of Horus, Hawk-god Division.”

            I always feel safe with Hotep around. We are each other’s best friends, and business partners, too. Share and share alike, you know. He is Egyptian, and I am Hebrew, as I told you, though with a Midianite mother.

            My background? Why, who wants to know? No fear, Stranger: I will tell you. You were kind enough to give us some honey mead liquor, and such a warming drink in this cold desert night air loosens the tongue, as they say. It is hard to remember, but I recall my mother—she was dark-eyed, dark-skinned, and beautiful; her name was Zipporah. My grandfather was a fat, laughing old duffer named Jethro. He was a priest of his people, in the tribal-village of Midian. There was my brother Gershom and me—he is a wanderer now, as well: I have not seen him in years.

            My father? Who? I cannot say: all I know is his name, Moses. They say he was a shepherd, and is now a miracle-worker in Egypt. What, Friend Hotep? Moses was a destroyer of Egypt? Well, you know, my dear friend, that my people have been slaves to your people for many centuries….

            No: you are correct, dear Hotep: my Israelites were not slaves to your people, but to your king, your Pharaoh. That is not the same, not the same. Your people and mine were friends at one time, long ago, under the Great Vizier, Joseph of Israel. Yes. But then, this evil, enslaving, obsessively-building Pharaoh, Ramesses II, came along. After all, two peoples can and should be friends; it is only the rulers who mess things up. That is what my mother, Zipporah, taught me, when I was little….

            “The stars and planets come in different sizes and colors, but they all give us light from afar,” she said. I never forgot that.

            What’s that question of yours, Stranger? Where are we next going, Hotep and me? Well, we’ve been talking about it, and we’re going to split up. We each have a particular mission, and  we are no longer to be living our lives of thievery. We have heard that there is a group of Egyptians who wish to try and overthrow the Pharaoh. Hotep wants to join them—with his military fighting skills, he may be of help to them.

“Why should my people be ruled by a king who enslaves others? That is not right,” he said to me.

And I thought, Can one man, one Hotep, overthrow such a king? Perhaps not: but several Hoteps, several Egyptians, trained and willing and courageous, can, perhaps.

            And what of poor Elazar, I with no family, and a distant father, Moses, my father in name only? I have heard of miracles, of Nile waters turned to blood, frogs jumping through people’s houses, locusts and lice and hail destroying the mighty Egyptian Empire—and my own father, Moses, whom I cannot recall, have not seen for years, behind it all!

            I am leaving my friend Hotep to his own new, life’s work, and will return to assist my father, my own Moses, to free my people. Perhaps my knowledge of this vast, mysterious wilderness, can be of some help.

            And more: I have heard tell of an invisible God. I should like to meet this God, whom my ancestors worshiped. Yes. That would be a good thing, for me and my children-to-come. Well. It is night, but that is no bar to travel.

            Shalom, Stranger! Shalom, Hotep! Shalom!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Bo: The Plague of Darkness in Our World Today


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            In this Parsha/Torah Portion, God continues to mete out His wrath against Pharaoh and the Egyptian People for oppressing the Israelites. This includes the last three plagues: locusts, which destroy the remnants of produce left from the plague of hail; darkness, which afflicts the Egyptians, but not the Israelites; and the Slaying of the Firstborn, which remains the most difficult to comprehend, although scholars have advanced theories to explain it.

            I focus on the Plague of Darkness, which we can interpret both metaphorically and physically. When I was studying Shemote/Exodus in Hebrew Day School, the rabbis always emphasized the Commentary of Rashi (early 11th Century), who loved to pile “miracle upon miracle,” making God’s activities as remarkable as possible. To this day, I wonder how many other-logical-minded Jews continue to believe Rashi, and take his commentaries literally. Rashi taught us young children that the Egyptians dwelt in darkness, but that the Israelites had light in their dwellings—a literal reading of the text. Furthermore, he expanded, if an Egyptian held a burning torch before himself, he was unable to behold its flames.

            How shall we interpret Rashi’s Commentary here? Must we take it literally, or may we avail ourselves of the common literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole, poetic exaggeration?

            As a student of literature, both secular and religious, I hold for the latter opinion. Rashi is trying to teach us a lesson: none so blind as those who will not see. While the other plagues all attacked entities which the Egyptians considered essential, or were parts of the agricultural or natural chain they required to live—yes, even the humble frogs, which ate thousands, millions, or harmful insects—the plague of darkness was God’s way of showing them that they had grown truly blind to their fellow-humans’ suffering. How else explain their connivance in throwing the Israelites’ babies into the Nile? How could they provide taskmasters to lash the Israelites, when they were too weary to provide the cruel Pharaoh with his stepped-up labor requirements?

            Of all the plagues, Darkness is the one still operating today, and there is no lack of Pharaohs. Where there is Darkness, let us not fear to shine a light on evil; where there is wrongdoing, let us hasten to correct it. To do otherwise, would be neither Jewish nor human. Remember this.