Mishpatim and Laws for the State of Israel (and others)

“When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back to him. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it you must nevertheless raise it with him (Exodus 23:4-5)… You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)”

In the Mechilta, an early collection of Midrash on the Book of Exodus, we are taught that this law to return your enemy’s livestock is connected to the precepts of justice found earlier in the Parasha. We Jews, this Midrash teaches, must not treat others in an injurious, unethical or immoral fashion just because they have treated us in such a manner. The Mechilta reminds us that our enemies do not cease to be human beings just because they act immorally or inhumanely toward us. For the sake of our own humanity –not theirs – we must act justly toward our enemies.

The stranger, the ger, mentioned in verse 9 refers to the non Jew resident in the Land of Israel. In tractate Bava Metzia of the Talmud, our Rabbis note, the Torah warns us about our behavior toward the stranger 36 times. According to Nachmanidies, a great Medieval Torah commentator, there is a two fold reason that we Jews must not exploit the strangers in our midst. The first is our Historic memory. We, of all people, know what it means to live as a persecuted minority. The second is that we have historic evidence, from the Exodus from Egypt, that God comes to the defense of the persecuted and defends them against their persecutors.

In the current American mediated peace talks Israelis today are being asked to return more than livestock. They are being asked, and are demonstrating a willingness, to return to their enemies portions of the historic land of our ancestors, rightfully won from their enemy in a defensive battle in 1967. Let no one forget that Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights in the Six Day War of June 1967, only after Egypt, Jordan and Syria joined in a battle with the intent of destroying the State of Israel.

The Palestinians are both Israel’s enemy and aliens resident in the Land of Israel. The Torah does not ask us to love our enemies. Earlier in this week’s Parasha, (chapter 21), the Torah gives us the right and the responsibility to defend ourselves against attacks by our enemies by clearly distinguishing murder from self defense. However, as I pointed out above, the Torah does demand of us to extend human rights and protection to the resident alien.

These principles of Torah are also embedded in the Balfour Declaration, whereby first Great Britain and later the League of Nations affirmed the right of the Jewish people to establish a Jewish home in Palestine and also promised that the civil and political rights of the existing population be affirmed. This language was also incorporated into the UN resolution 181 of November 1947 which called for the partition of mandated Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

This year I hear Parshat Mishpatim calling out to us to say to the Palestinian People: ”We do not want to rule over you. We do not want to oppress you. We want only to live beside you; each of us in our own tent; each in our own community; each in our own State; in a state of Peaceful co existence. We will treat you with respect and grant you autonomy because, as Jews, we am commanded by God to treat you in such a manner and at all times to seek Peace and pursue it”.

There are many in Israel, including members of the current government who would choose to hear only the call to self defense. As Reform Jews, through the Israel Religious Action Center, (IRAC), we Reform Jews around the world are playing a key role in voicing this call to recognize the rights of the ger within the continuing debate over this latest peace effort. IRAC‘s ability to be a voice for social justice religious pluralism and equal rights requires all of our support.

Anyone, Israeli, Palestinian or American who thinks that once an interim or even a permanent political solution to the Arab Israeli Conflict is reached that Jews and Arabs will become best of friends, is, I believe, naively mistaken. What is possible and what our tradition demands of us is that Israel seek a way to live securely, without having to take security measures which of necessity, involve the suppression of the political rights of her enemies.

Unfortunately, in order for Israel to adhere simultaneously to the Mitzvah of “Pikuah Nefesh”, the defense of her own citizens, and to the Mitzvah of respecting the rights of the “Ger“, the Palestinians must cooperate, by forsaking terrorism, and responsibly assuming authority over their internal affairs, as is provided for in the Declaration of Principles signed on the White House lawn, on September 13, 1993.

While many within the organized Jewish community worldwide and many within Israel are pessimistic and therefore reticent to take more risks for peace we Reform Jews through IRAC can and must be an optimistic though not naïve voice for seeking peace and justice for Jews and the GER in our midst in the Jewish State of Israel and in our hopefully peaceful neighboring State of Palestine.

Our Torah reading this week includes a long list of laws dealing with the whole spectrum of human life. The comprehensive list of statutes covers the area of our relationships to the earth upon which we live, to the people we consider members of our own community, to inter community relations and to our relationships with our enemies, as well as our friends. Today the challenge to the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators is to write a workable agreement through which both Israelis and Palestinians can increase their trust in each other and decrease the fear they have of each other. May the peace process now under way transform the relationship of Arab and Jew from that of enemy to friend; May the merciful God who redeemed us from Egypt and who gave us the (Mishpatim), the statues found in this week’s Parasha, be the catalyst for creating a spirit of (Achava), of Brotherhood, between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael and may God bless the State of Israel and all her inhabitants with true Shalom.


About the author: 

Rabbi Neal I Borovitz is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, New Jersey. 


The above was published earlier as part of our Torah from Around the World series #203.

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