Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat Shekalim 5781 D’var Torah
In my family, we occasionally need to talk about consequences. We have an almost four year old who I hope you will all get to know in time. She’s awesome. And she, like many almost four year olds, sometimes makes questionable decisions. Her most recent questionable decision was, while looking me right in the eye, rubbing her toothbrush on the floor when she didn’t want to brush her teeth. On the floor. It was so gross. So we needed to come up with a consequence to this action to dissuade her from such a choice in the future. In this case, she is not allowed to use her Daniel Tiger toothbrush for a week and instead has to use the plain one. I know…it’s so harsh.
Of course, this is a small example of having consequences for our actions, but it’s a decent one. Parenting theories aside, we break a rule, we expect some kind of balanced reaction that matters to us – and we hope it will help us remember to change our behavior in the future or that it somehow makes the situation right.
Enter Parshat Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. If last week’s Torah portion was about the big and sweeping headlines of the laws we receive on Mount Sinai, then this week is the fine print. In fact, this entire parsha is a litany of laws. Things we need to do. Things we must not do. People we must care for. Lost oxen we must return. Lies we must not lie. Bribes we must not take. These laws become our moral compass.
And, notably, Mishpatim sets up not just a system of laws, but it’s also our first real look at the consequences we will face for breaking them. Our covenant with God and with each other comes with penalties for failing to live by the rules that we’ve agreed to. If you injure someone, you need to pay for their lost work and cure. If your sheep eats from someone else’s field, you have to pay for that. One who steals something borrowed has to pay double its value.
And, remarkably, these consequences are applied more or less equally, regardless of who breaks the law. The text explicitly says that a judge should not show deference to the rich or to the poor. And we count on this. There is a certain dignity in knowing that – a law is a law, and if broken, even the most powerful will be called to account.
If we fast forward to today, we know we also live within a system of laws. While its foundation reflects parshat mishpatim, in which if you do something wrong, you will face known consequences for that action, it’s easy to see how we fall short. Our justice system is unevenly applied and is often stacked against the most vulnerable, most especially black and brown folks, while the most powerful can sometimes evade any consequences at all.
And this week, we are witnessing a trial of a former president, the outcome of which is all but already determined. It seems that no matter how obvious it is to the public that this defendant is guilty, no matter the truths that are told, the videos shared, and the dangers to life and democracy that were perpetrated on January 6th and the months leading up to it, it seems like the fix is in. It is almost sure that there will be no legal consequences for actions that are seared into our minds.
The air feels heavy with it. It’s not just that it feels unfair. It’s exhausting. It punches us in the gut. It triggers in us all kinds of emotions to watch the most powerful “get away with” egregious acts of dishonesty, cruelty, and indifference. We are “mishpatim people” and this – is not that. We might feel frustrated. Or angry. Or disillusioned. We might feel our dignity is diminished. When those who have brazenly done wrong are not held accountable – it can feel like something is taken from us.
So what do we do when the world of Mishpatim-justice is so easily dismissed? How does our tradition guide us then?
I think the beginning of an answer is also found in this Torah portion.
Amidst all of the legal minutiae, the text also says:
וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת־נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי־גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
And I want to suggest that this verse paints a two part picture for us that can shore us up and give us some direction for this challenging moment in our country.
First – in the midst of a conversation about laws and the consequences for breaking them, Torah wisely reminds us “geirim hayitem” – we were strangers in the land of Egypt, oppressed as a people. In our sacred narrative, we lived for hundreds of years knowing that no hurt done to us would ever be punished. We are deeply acquainted with a lack of accountability for wrong-doing by the most powerful. In our origin story and in many chapters of our people’s history, we swam in this indignity daily – and it shaped us.
Imagine what it took to live in such a space – and to still retain our sense of self, our humanity.
We don’t only have access to a kind of ragey frustration for this moment. We also have access to the resilience of a people who lived in this reality with their values intact – recognizing it, noting it, loathing it, but also surviving it. Outlasting it and outliving it.
And second. What was the result of swimming in the waters of injustice for so long? The rule of empathy emerged.
Tucking this particular verse into Parshat Mishpatim guides us toward what to DO when we are disillusioned by the guilty not being held accountable for the damage they have caused. It does not say – you were oppressed, so take revenge wherever you can. Or you were oppressed, so watch your own back. Or you were oppressed, so others should have to be, too. No, it is explicit. You were oppressed…Therefore, you shall not oppress others. Y’datem et nefesh hager. We are not led toward bitterness. Rather, our tradition guides us toward radical empathy, of all things. To love harder. Expand our hearts. Help uncrush the crushed. Affirm the dignity of the most vulnerable. Amplify our humanity.
There are times when consequences will not be meted out. No one will be held accountable even when we can see the truth with our own eyes. It will ache within us, knowing it’s not right.
In these moments, may we draw on the strength of our own origin story to survive these episodes of indignity and hurt. And may we let them draw us only further into love and empathy. As we may be deflated by reading the writing on this wall, may we only grow in our embrace of the truth, the other, and a future where justice and compassion and truth are again honored. Amen.