Tag Archives: Vulnerable

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

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Don’t Claim to be Righteous When You are Just being Selfish

One of my favorite television shows is The Walking Dead. I am glad I am not alone in this, since it’s one of the most watched dramas on cable. The show tells the story of survival of a group of strangers who have become family, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. I started watching believing it was a horror series, but despite the amazing make up and special effects, it is much more than that. It focuses on what one is willing to do in order to survive. And there are moments in the story where things seem normal to the viewer. There was the season where Rick and his friends set up a garden and a farm and were again living off the land. There was another moment when they were living in a gated community in modern homes, relying on solar panels to once again have electricity. They were eating freshly cooked meals around dining room tables. They were sleeping in king-sized beds on freshly washed sheets. For a moment, all was well in the world and you forgot the realities of this dystopian future. Then someone got bit by a “walker” and the terrible reality set in again. The characters realized that it was truly impossible to “play house” when the world around them – and the realities of that world – were destroyed.

I thought of my love for this pop culture phenomenon when reading Parashat Noach, this past week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of Noah building an ark to survive the deadly flood of forty days and forty nights. The Torah portion begins with the explanation that Noah was a righteous and simple person in his generation. Much inked has been spilled exploring what this means, debating how righteous Noah was exactly. Was he especially righteous because he didn’t give in to the peer pressure of doing wrong just as those around him did? Was he judged on a bell curve, only seen as righteous compared to those around him, but not compared to other righteous individuals in past or future generations? This is a question that without a doubt Noah asks of himself following the consequential flood.

The rarely taught in Hebrew School post-flood narrative shows the dark acceptance of a dystopian reality, much like the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Noah exits the ark and immediately plants a vineyard. A verse later, the Torah tells us that he gets drunk and reveals his nakedness, and that his own child exposes his nakedness. Clearly, Noah is so inebriated, that he is unable to control his actions, or those of others. This was not a spontaneous decision to drink in excess. Anyone who has ever made their own wine knows that it takes time to till the soil, plant the vineyard, wait for the vines to grow, wait for them to bear fruit, wait for the grapes to ferment, wait for the wine to age in a dark area, and then eventually drink it. This is a months – if not years – long process. Noah knew exactly what he was doing, and this was his first action once he exited the ark. He did not declare how blessed he was to be saved. He did not thank God for the opportunity to repopulate the earth. Instead, he saw a world of doom and destruction, a world where he and his family were all that was left of humanity, and couldn’t live in this world without being intoxicated. If he did, then he would see the dismay and devastation; if he did, then he would realize that it was his fault.

One of the reasons that biblical commentator Rashi suggests that Noah would not be viewed as righteous compared to Abraham is because when Abraham hears that God is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he stands up to God and fights to save the masses. He acknowledges the wrong doing of some, but fights for all – including the strangers that he doesn’t know. Noah is told by God to build an ark because a flood will annihilate the world and Noah doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t question, debate, or argue with God. He just builds the ark, relieved that he and his family will be spared. Only after the flood does he realize that this world is impossible to live in alone. He has survivor’s guilt, not just because he survived and others did not, but because he had the ability and opportunity to help others and chose to remain silent.

How often are we only concerned with how something directly impacts us? How often do we ignore the suffering if we are not harmed, or worse benefit because of that suffering? How often do we forget the teaching of our Mishnah, that if we only look at for ourselves, then who are we?

If we are not concerned with the millions that may lose healthcare as a result of cheaper monthly premiums for us, then we are not so righteous? If we are okay with ignoring the many programs that will be cut that help those who need it most in this country, just so we pay less in taxes, then we are not so righteous. If we ignore the pain and heartache of others for our own gain, then we are not so righteous. It took Noah until the world was completely wiped out to realize that he was wrong. He didn’t realize that his seemingly righteous actions were quite selfish until it was too late. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us not ignore the rights of others and try to justify it through religious conviction. Let us not threaten he most vulnerable among us and claim to still walk in God’s ways. Let us not be complacent with hurting others for our own gain and advancement. Let us not claim to be righteous when we spend so much of our time being selfish. Let’s begin by caring about others before we care for ourselves. Otherwise, we will end up regretting our actions or inactions, our decisions, and our votes, but it will be too late.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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