In the wonderful world of midrash, the rabbis portray the letters of our Hebrew alphabet as agents in dialogue with the Divine, each pleading their case as to why the holy Torah should begin with them.
In this week’s parasha however, I imagine an entirely different dialogue taking place. Here the dialogue is not between the Hebrew letters and God, but between the parasha of Mishpatim, and God.
In last week’s Torah portion, parashat Yitro, the Jews received the Torah, the central and most significant event in Jewish history. In the mind of the midrash, it may even be the most significant event in history. It states: “When the Holy and Blessed One gave the Torah, not a bird chirped, nor did any fowl fly…neither were the angelic Seraphim chanting, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, (Holy, Holy, Holy)…no creatures uttered a sound, (and) the world was in absolute silence (humbly listening for) the voice to echo forth (throughout the entire universe saying): I am the LORD your God,” (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 29:9).
Parashat Yitro also states that at Har Sinai/Mount Sinai, “All the people saw the thunders and the flashes of lightening, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain…” (Exodus 20:15), which the midrash richly interprets as meaning, “They saw what was audible, and they heard what was visible,” (Melkhlita d’Rabbi Yishmael, 20:15:1).
So in parashat Yitro we have 1) The magnificence of the Divine “I Am” calling out into universal silence; and 2) The Jews experiencing grand visions of sound, along with an auditory experience of vision. If that’s Torah, sign me up.
And now we reach parashat Mishpatim, and the reason why I envision parashat Mishpatim in a desperate dialogue with the Divine, metaphorically imploring God: “Please don’t position me immediately after parashat Yitro. Anywhere else yes, just not after Yitro, not after the parasha in which the mystic gift of Your holy Torah is given. What comparable insights could I as a parasha offer to Your people? And will they even listen, after such an exalted experience, especially since my parsha describes oxen goring each other?
The following is my response to parashat Mishpatim’s question, explaining why she deserves such prominence of place. The ultimate goal of Torah is for Torah to be brought down from the mountaintop. The heavens don’t need the peace of Torah, we do. To bring heavenly peace into this plain, into the plain of the mundane, is Torah‘s ultimate purpose. “The entire Torah was (given) for the sake of the ways of peace, as it is written: ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace,’” (Proverbs 3:17 and Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 59b). Here is one way parashat Mishpatim offers us this gift.
In Exodus 23:4–5 it states:
“If you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help (him) with it.” The goal of these verses is obvious: to make or bring about peaceful reconciliation between fellow human beings. And the language is precise, direct, and painful: we are to be the primary agents effecting reconciliation. The focus is on us, you and me: “if you encounter/see,” “you shall surely bring/help.” Tragically, more often than not, we “refrain” from our calling, thus failing to live up to our wisdom of: “Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into his friend,” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 23).
But as beautiful as that is, I believe there is one more element involved in this practice of (potentially) turning our “enemy into a friend,” and parashat Mishpatim can again serve as our wise guide in this process. It involves understanding how and why the person became our enemy, and as a result, now lives with hatred for us, in his or her heart. For this we look to Exodus 23:1, again with reference to our own actions, but this time also with a societal focus. “You shall not bear/carry/lift up a false/empty/vain report/rumor; do not place your hand with a wicked person to be a false/malicious/violent witness,” (this is an amplified translation, offering greater breadth and nuance). This text centers around the destructive speech patterns that so often plague our lives, and its proximity to our texts on enemy relations is intentional. When we realize that the Hebrew word for false/empty/vain is related to the Hebrew word for destruction and desolation, the link between our enemy verses and speech becomes even more intimate.
How often does our speech function simply to lift up empty, destructive rumors that assassinate the character of those with whom we have legitimate, political differences? Have we ever attempted to understand the heart of the other, before degrading their humanity, and making them into an enemy? If we are obligated to return our enemy’s donkey, shouldn’t we be equally obligated to seek to redeem and restore our enemy’s heart?
My hope is that through these reflections, we may begin to see more clearly the reasons behind why parashat Mishpatim truly should follow after parashat Yitro.
May we learn to honor and care for the heart of our enemies, as much as we honor their donkeys. Who knows, in the end, we may end up with more friends.
To all our heroes/giborim, past, present, and future, I say shalom.
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).