Tag Archives: injustice

If We Forget That, Then Nothing Else Matters

Appropriately named, Parashat Mishpatim is filled with laws. Immediately after revelation at Sinai, this Torah portion is filled with all the laws that make up this covenant that the Israelites just entered with God. In the middle of all these Mishpatim, all these laws, about slaves and servants, about damages, sorceresses, and worshipping false Gods, we are simply told:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt (Ex. 22:20).

Literally, moments ago. In case the Israelites forgot, two parshiot ago, they were just freed from slavery. Seven chapters ago, they crossed a split sea to freedom.  But how quickly we forget that we too were strangers in a strange land. And then the Torah continues:

And Every widow and orphan you shall not mistreat (Ex.22:21).

The Mekhilta stipulates that one should not even mistreat them in the smallest or slightest way. These three are linked together in the middle of all these otherwise odd laws: do not mistreat the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Do not mistreat those who biblical society deemed to be the most vulnerable among us. Shemot Rabbah concludes that what caused the destruction of Jerusalem was when judges perverted the judgement of widows and orphans, when we no longer sought to be kind and compassionate towards the most vulnerable. Jersualem was destroyed when we took advantage of the most vulnerable. The Malbim even adds that the prohibition against oppressing orphans and widows is not meant to be specific towards orphans and widows. Rather, it is an example of a general rule that it is forbidden to take advantage of any person who is vulnerable and in a state of helplessness.

This is smack in the middle of all these laws. How often do we focus on the intricacies of ritual, or making sure we stick to the letter of the law, and how often do we ignore the divine mandate to look out for those most vulnerable? How often do we make sure we are loudly pronouncing each letter of the Torah chanted correctly, but refuse to speak up for the voiceless? How often do we make sure that our animals are slaughtered precisely, but ignore those who are food insecure?

We live in a society of haves and have-nots. And if we are so lucky to be part of the haves instead of the have nots, how often do we ignore the plight of the have-nots. Even though we all once were in a state of vulnerability. We too were strangers in a strange land. Too many speak about what it means to be a person of faith, and ignore how our faith commands us to treat other people. These commands are in the middle of these laws, in the middle of this Torah portion, because they are meant to buttress all the laws are them. They are the basis for everything. If we neglect the most vulnerable among us, then nothing else matters. If we ignore the struggle of those made in God’s divine image, then we are failing in our covenant with God.

New Jersey’s junior senator, Senator Cory Booker, is often quoted as saying:

“Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people. Don’t tell me how much you love your God; show me in how much you love all God’s children. Don’t preach to me your passion for your faith; teach me through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.“

Among all these laws, laws that we struggle with, laws that we still follow every day, laws that no longer make sense in the society we are living in, let us not forget the law to take care of the most vulnerable around us. If we forget that, then nothing else matters.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Privilege and Injustice: Joseph’s Role in helping some while hurting others

Joseph could no longer control himself, the Torah tells us.

“Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’” (Gen. 45:1-4).

Joseph reunites with his brothers. He is the hero and he is the savior, not just for his family, but for all of Egypt. Or so we are led to believe. Pharaoh responds by telling Joseph’s family that “the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Gen. 45:20). Pharaoh says, “the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land” (Gen. 47:6). And in turn,  “Joseph sustained his father, and his brothers, and all his father’s household with bread, down to the little ones” (Gen. 47:12).

It seems everything works out. And Joseph saves all of Egypt from famine by supplying them with food that had been collected during seven years of plenty. It was a happily ever after conclusion to the story. As Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote and the ensemble of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat sang: “Joseph how can we ever say all that we want to about you, We’re so glad that you came our way; we would have perished without you.”

But the Torah tells us that Joseph wasn’t the savior that that is portrayed under the lights of Broadway. It wasn’t so happily ever after, at least not for those who weren’t a part of Joseph’s family. When the famine became so severe and there was no bread in the land, Egyptians began turning to the vizier of Egypt.  But Joseph wasn’t giving away “handouts.” This was not an act of tzedakah or charity. First, Joseph takes their money: “Joseph gathered all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt” (Gen. 47:14). And when there was no money left Joseph said, “bring me your livestock” (Gen. 47:16).  And when no animals were left they were desperate for food and said: “take us and our land in exchange for bread” (Gen. 47:19).

As Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, points out: “Joseph is an adept manager, but he is also seemingly a ruthless one: He saves the Egyptians but, as we shall see, he also enslaves them.” Joseph ends up creating a system of indentured servitude. The Egyptians couldn’t pay for food. First, they gave their money, and then their cattle, and then their homes, and then finally themselves. Joseph is no tzedek. He is not giving out food during a humanitarian crisis, like we would expect FEMA or the Red Cross to do. He is taking advantage of the straits that the Egyptians find themselves in and acquires them. Joseph enslaves them.

We are often left wondering: how is it possible that a king could rise up at the beginning of Exodus who doesn’t know Joseph, who in turn enslaves the Israelites?!? But what if the Israelites were the last to be enslaved? As troubling as the exodus story is, and as essential as the exodus experience is to our communal memory, what if we read it differently? What if according to this understanding, all of Egypt were enslaved except for the Israelites. All had succumbed to the reality of serfdom while the Hebrew privilege, the privilege that came from being a relative of Joseph allowed the Israelites to live in the best of the land, never having to worry about where their next meal would come from. But then all of a sudden, we become enslaved and finally demand justice. Moses only speaks for God in referring to the Israelites when demanding “Let My People Go!” However, when everyone else was enslaved under Pharaoh’s rule, they were ignored.

We never acknowledge the discrimination, injustice, and enslavement of our neighbors in Egypt. We know others were enslaved. The Torah tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, there was an erev rav, a mixed multitude of diverse individuals who joined in the Exodus with the Israelites. They were enslaved as well, marching with us side-by-side through a split sea to freedom. Yet, we ignore them – or at least ignored them – until we were the victims of an unjust system. What if the Israelites were apathetic – at best – to the injustices around them and directly responsible – at worst – for them?

The problem with the Exodus narrative that brings us such hope is that we only care about our own freedom and ignored the enslavement and injustice of others because it didn’t directly affect us.

Let’s not celebrate Joseph’s dreams coming true. Let’s not celebrate Joseph saving the day. Because he didn’t. Let’s remember Dr. King’s teaching that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. If we refuse to stand up to injustice when it happens to another, it will ultimately happen to us as well as well. And no one will be there to stand with us as allies. It shouldn’t then be a surprise that the Israelites were eventually enslaved if they were content with the enslavement of everyone else in Egypt.

We cannot only stand up and scream because of the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. It is deeply troubling, but if we only care about that, and aren’t equally concerned about the rise in hate crimes across the board – about the rise in Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and racism – then we can’t be shocked with the spike in hatred towards us. If we witness injustice happening all around us but are content because Pharaoh supplies us with bread on our tables and the best of the land of Egypt to live in, then we are just waiting for injustice to happen to us as well. Let us remember that your liberation is bound up with mine, and mine with yours. So let us work together to create a wholly just society, where no one’s success is the result of anyone else’s demise.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized