The Holiness of Social Capital | Parashat Mishpatim

A few years ago, I took my children to a back to school event at their elementary school.  The school was about a quarter of a mile from our house so walked. It was a sunny day when we left our house, but the weather changed it was pouring rain when we walked home. 

As we were walking, a neighbor and his children saw us getting soaked and invited us to stand under the awning outside their house to stay dry. Although we lived on the same street, I had never met this neighbor before. After a few minutes of standing under their awning, our neighbor, “David,” invited us into his home. 

Since we did not know each other, it would have been very easy for David to let us walk by without saying a word. Instead David opened up his house to us, fed us and gave us a warm place to be. David’s generosity taught me the power of community, and our ability to care for one another.

David’s actions epitomized the lessons in this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim. In this week’s parasha we read about the laws for living in community with one another and the holiness of caring for each other. These laws include a wide range of topics including the treatment of slaves, animals and the land.  Mishpatim explicitly states that we need to assist everyone in our community, even our enemies.  For example, Exodus 23:4 reads: “when you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering you must take it back.”1  In addition to reiterating that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, Mishpatim teaches that we must care for our whole community treating everyone fairly and with dignity.  Exodus 23:10-11 reads: “six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.  Let the needy among your people eat of it and what they leave let the wild beasts eat.  You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.”2

This idea of creating a holy society by caring for others is repeated several times in this Torah portion.  Each time reiterating the concept, that we are not supposed to ignore the suffering or hardship of our neighbors, instead we are instructed to help each other seeing the humanity in one another.  

We read about these ideals in our text, but how often do put them into action?

On the holiness of caring for our neighbors, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) writes that it is similar to the idea of social capital. Social capital, a term that sociologists use to measure wealth but it is not about money. It assesses the level of trust within a society.  Social capital occurs neighbors feel like they are surrounded by people who have each other’s interests at heart. It is assuming the best about others and believing that people will help one another in times of need. When communities include social capital they work better because of the relational bonds among the people even if there are not close ties linking them. 3

In an article written by Thomas H. Sander and Kathleen Lowney, they explain the importance of building up of social capital, and created a toolkit for enhancing it.  According to Sander and Lowney, social capital is built through trust and reciprocity.  They suggest the more connected people are to each other through community organizations such as schools, religious institutions, volunteer opportunities etc, the more invested they are in each other. These connections foster bonds in a community increasing the likelihood people will find common ground and bridge differences. As these differences lessens, the similarities rise and more social capital is built.  With the increased social capital, people trust each other and are more likely to help one another.4

Sanders and Lowney’s arguments are aligned with Sack’s reading of the parasha which focuses on our relationships and responsibilities to one another. If we think of interactions with friends, community members and strangers as a path to holiness, we will strive to support each other and contribute to the social capital around us.

Since the day we were caught in the rain, I often have asked myself, if I had seen a family of strangers walking would I have noticed or done anything help them? Would I have been as hospitable to David and his family as they were to us?

This portion is urging us to be like David not only by building social capital through our community involvements, but also by helping our friends, neighbors and strangers in their times of need. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ends his commentary with these words: “never be in too much of a rush to stop and come to the aid of someone in need of help. Rarely if ever will you better invest your time. It may take a moment but its effect may last a lifetime. Or as William Wordsworth put it: “The best portion of a good person’s life: the little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”5

May we be able to live up to these ideals caring for one another, building social capital and creating holiness around us. 

1 Tamara Cohen Eskenazi, Andrea Weiss, “The Torah: A Women’s Torah Commentary,” URJ Press, 2008, page, 439.
2 Ibid, page, 440.
3 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Covenant and Conversation” “Social Capital and Fallen Donkeys” The Sacks Legacy Trust: Ki Teitse 5778.
4 Thomas H. Sander, Kathleen Lowney, “Harvard School Social Capital Toolkit” Saguaro Seminar, October 2006 page 3.
5 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Covenant and Conversation” “Social Capital and Fallen Donkeys” The Sacks Legacy Trust: Ki Teitse 5778.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).