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Friday Night's Sermon 2/1/19: Protecting the Vulnerable

This week’s portion is “Mishpatim”. We now start to get introduced to the other commandments after Moses received the initial Ten Commandments. We now drill down into further levels of G-d’s teaching as we see how to act and behave in His Universe.

The first of the post-Ten Commandments commandments deals with slaves. These are indentured servants who are paying off a fine for thievery. Further on into the portion, there are discussions of an unbetrothed woman who is attacked, burglars that invade a home to steal, persecution of strangers, false reports about people, and people’s livestock who are in trouble owned by someone you may not like.

Before discussing these, consider that there are various concepts that we use to analyze and understand Torah. In the Torah, nothing is random. Every sentence is in a specific place by design. It is interesting, then, that these are presented where they are.

The Ten Commandments are, of course, the most important. It stands to reason, then, that what would immediately follow those are next in importance in the grand scheme of things. There are other commandments mentioned, but these seem to have something in common: they all protect those most vulnerable in society.

This also says something about Judaism and tells us on what we, as a people, need to focus. A few years ago, I was spending part of the day running errands and was, as usual, in a hurry I had stopped at one particular store where the credit card terminals had just stopped working. I, of course, was getting very impatient and angry at how these people were inconveniencing me. Meanwhile, the clerk/manager was doing everything she could to take my card manually. As I watched her, I started to come out of myself and see her frustration and almost intimidation as she struggles to get the job done. I settled down, almost feeling ashamed of myself for my nasty thoughts. I relayed this story on social media and someone mentioned that you can always tell the character of someone by how they treat a waitress.

There are some people who like to be in control over others. This makes them feel superior. These are people who have low self-esteem and they are compensating. The problem is that they do it at someone else’s expense because typically they are forcing their “power” over them. This is why these commandments are necessary, to prevent abusing others.

The most vulnerable people in society are slaves or indentured servants. Judaism demands that even these people, on the lowest rung of society, get treated with respect. It is so important, that right after the discussion about the rights of slaves that Torah introduces us to lex talionis, the law of the tally, or measure for measure. Even slaves get justice.

We also see the laws of gossip. Many may be thinking, oh, no, not again! Not yet another discussion of gossip! Does the Torah really mention it so many times? Yes, it does, and for good reason. The commandment here admonishes us not to join in the company of those who gossip or give a false report.

The idea of false witnesses is critical because the results can be devastating. In the justice system, a great many cases are decided on the basis of testimony from witnesses. In Judaism, two witnesses are needed to convict someone. People may get together and plot to discredit someone by embellishing the truth. As a check to this, the Torah provides that if at least two other people come forward and dispute the first two witnesses’ testimony the defendant is vindicated. This prevents the devastating situation of an innocent person suffering an unwarranted judgment. Furthermore, if the first two witnesses are discredited, they receive the punishment that would have been meted out to the accused. A very harsh consequence for those who prefer power and control to honesty and integrity.

We need to treat people with respect. Hillel knew this concept. When his future protégé showed up at his door and asked to be taught Torah while standing on one foot, how did Hillel respond? He didn’t say “The L-rd our G-d took us out of Egypt to be our G-d” or “Honor the Sabbath”. He talked about the best way to treat others by not doing to others what is hateful to yourself.

Let’s all remember that.

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