By Susan DeMari
Jews have always placed a high value on abiding by the laws and rules set forth in the Torah. Jewish law, halacha, means “that by which one walks” and is comprised of the laws laid out in the Torah and the Talmud and interpretations of these laws. Many of these laws are enunciated in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, which means “rules.”
In Mishpatim, the Torah moves from narrative to instructions on how we are to live our lives. In Mishpatim, the Israelites are given a series of civil and criminal laws. The rules presented, often called the “Book of the Covenant,” fall into two categories. The first group (21:2-22:16) are case laws, which describe specific scenarios. The second group (22:17-2:19) are unconditional imperatives that one must follow every day.
The parsha begins with the words, “And these are the laws…” The word “and” connects this parsha to the previous one (Yitro) which outlined the Ten Commandments. The last five of those commandments relate to the proper behavior between an individual and other Jews. The many mitzvot detailed in chapters 21, 22, and 23 are applications of those five principles: 1) Don’t murder; 2) Don’t commit adultery; 3) Don’t steal; 4) Don’t bear false witness; 5) Don’t covet. Chapter 24 uncovers the lengths to which Moses went to bring those laws to Mount Sinai.
When I first started preparing for my thoughts on this portion, it was before the shocking events that, with gratitude, ended safely for Rabbi Charles Cytron-Walker and several members of Congregation Beth Israel. Initially, I was thinking about how Mishpatim placed limitations on slavery, but did not prohibit it. Reading it again in preparation of my draft for this week’s Torah thoughts, the eternal messages and truths contained therein took on a different meaning.
These rules and instructions were written in ancient times when the way of life was very different from our contemporary way of life. So today we have to determine, as scholars and rabbis have for centuries, what meaning these rules have for contemporary society and what eternal messages and truths are contained in them.
Mishpatim teaches us that change comes slowly, particularly when it applies to monumental societal change. We used to worship without worry, our doors open and welcoming to strangers, even if from a strange land. Today, our doors are locked, we fight to conquer the increasing rise in antisemitism and work to protect ourselves in self-defense from those that want to harm us, simply because we are Jewish.
The laws tell us, in part, that if a thief is caught breaking in, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed. While we never want to find ourselves in such a position of having to defend, when a person enters our House of Worship with intent to do us harm, we are commanded through the laws of Mishpatim not to oppress the stranger, but perhaps to increase our attentiveness as a defender.
There continues to be a steady rise in antisemitism, and when I read these rules following the events of January 15, 2022, my thought is that it is incumbent upon each one of us to do our part to follow God’s commandments and obey God’s rules with proactive measures of being prepared and preventing the “thief” from causing us harm. Through training, let us come together and make it clear to the would-be-wrong-doer that they should anticipate resistance.
What the Torah tells us in Mishpatim is that there are ways to handle those who do us harm through laws, moral codes, education and social responsibility. Does this mean that we should keep our doors shut, not be welcoming into our homes and Houses of Worship? It does not. Let us each do our part to better understand how to distinguish between the thief that wants to cause harm and the individual that wants to daven with us and be a part of Jewish Buffalo.
Susan DeMari is the Security Coordinator for Buffalo Jewish Federation. You can reach her at Sdemari@buffalojewishfederation.org. Keep an eye out in the weekly My Jewish Buffalo emails for training opportunities to help you do your part.