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Are We From the Same Tribe?  – פרשת משפטים

When the dust settled, the fire and brimstone subsided, and the pyrotechnics, thunderous booms, and shofar blasts all faded away, the children of Israel stood by with a quiet “Uh, so now what?” kind of a look.

Moses assured them not to be afraid, to trust in God, and now for the fine print.

The Ten Commandments were one thing, but now laws are being hurled at them like drinking from a firehose. “These are the rules that you shall set before them,” God tells Moses to tell us. And there are a lot of rules in Parashat Mishpatim  to be exact: 53 mitzvot—23 mitzvot asei, imperative commandments, and 30 mitzvot lo ta’asei, prohibitions.

Where would you begin? How about with a rule that one might find taped to a wall, written in crayon, for a pre-school that says plainly “Don’t Hit People”? And, if we need to be more specific – Don’t hit people with sticks.

Verse 12 gets us started with a hard to misinterpret verse:

מַכֵּ֥ה אִ֛ישׁ וָמֵ֖ת מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃

He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death.

And verse 20 takes it even further:

וְכִֽי־יַכֶּה֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּ֜וֹ א֤וֹ אֶת־אֲמָתוֹ֙ בַּשֵּׁ֔בֶט וּמֵ֖ת תַּ֣חַת יָד֑וֹ נָקֹ֖ם יִנָּקֵֽם׃

When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod, and he dies there and then he must be avenged.

Rashi’s explanation here is critical:
Commenting on the term used here בַּשֵּׁ֔בֶט “with a rod,” he interprets that to mean “a rod that is capable of inflicting death.” In other words, when a person hits another person with a rod, a pole, a big stick, a club, or any other blunt object capable of lethal force.

But שֵּׁ֔בֶט also means tribe or clan. Are we to infer that those who use a Shevet (rod) could be from a different Shevet (tribe)? It is clear what it means to attack with a shevet/club or a rod, but what does it look like to attack with a tribe or with tribalism? Does attacking with a rod further forge a fracturing in society beyond the physical violence?  Do their actions further exacerbate the difference in outlooks and polar extremes that exist among Jews and how we interpret Judaism?

I raise this today as we move into Shabbat Mishpatim because we have recently seen despicable displays of behavior – violent attacks by rod-wielding settler extremists against Palestinian farmers and Jewish activists helping to protect those farmers. Somehow these extremist aggressors have missed these verses in the Torah which clearly prohibit this kind of behavior. But, because the Torah specifically speaks to these actions in the form of “when they take place” and not “if,” we can understand that such things did and do occur in our society, which then begs the question as to what the response should be?

So far, the Israeli authorities have done very little to apprehend any perpetrators, protect against future attacks, arrest and prosecute perpetrators. This past October, IRAC sent a position paper to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee highlighting the failure to curb these acts of Jewish terrorism. It included 11 pages listing incidents of Jewish violence dating from 2018 to mid-2021 and described the human cost of the empty and broken promises given by the authorities to devote time and resources to this issue. A discussion on this issue was held in the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee (headed by MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv) on Tuesday of this week. (You can watch the recording of the Knesset Committee discussion Here – unfortunately, there are no English subtitles).

These ugly acts are not new, but as the social media lingo suggests, they are ‘trending,’ and appear to be increasing in frequency and severity suggesting that these are organized and calculated attacks to terrorize Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists.

Speaking of ‘trending’, now less than two weeks since the heart-wrenching hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, I’ve been wondering how long until we see the viral spread of the latest motto:  #WWRCCWD (of course, short for What Would Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker Do?)

Despite his kindness and gracious הכנסת אורחים (welcoming guests) having been taken advantage of, he maintains that he would act the same way and still welcome in a wayward stranger and offer them a cup of tea.

In reviewing the sequence of events between the extremist settlers and the Palestinian farmers and those who were there to help them, I had a vision of what could be:

What if – instead of careening down the rocky landscape with masks, rods, clubs, and a gasoline canister (used to torch an activist’s car) – the representatives of the Jewish communities of the surrounding settlements brought down a camping stove and cups and invited everyone to a cup of tea? It is entrenched in Bedouin culture and features prominently in how Abraham and Sarah acted in the book of Genesis. If they wanted to demonstrate dominion over the land, then kill them with kindness, not with clubs.

Why not invite activists to come to their village to drink tea with them, meet their families, sample their wares, and learn Torah together sitting (literally and figuratively) under the vines and fig trees planted as indigenous species in this ancient land. What if instead of trying to drive people out with violence and scare tactics, why not show them the kindness that melts hearts and changes minds.

What if, instead of uprooting already planted trees, Jewish residents of West Bank communities reached out to create cooperative projects such as this one: https://www.buildingtogether.org/projects ?

It would be hard to criticize the Settlers if they went out of their way to acknowledge their neighbors and to show that they can co-exist with them.

No, I don’t presume to think that the Jewish activists are going to all of a sudden drink a cup of tea and become sympathetic to the Settler Movement, just like the warm welcome and cup of tea did not deter Malik Faisal Akram from going on with his sinister plan.

And no, I am not naïve in understanding these particular extremists’ motives of ridding the land of Palestinians or transferring them to neighboring countries. It sounds almost cliché, but…

But this violence cannot continue, which is why we were proud to lend our voice as a Movement to this statement condemning extremist Jewish violence.

What is fascinating is that both Jewish parties involved claim to be doing so out of a desire to uphold Jewish tradition. Some claim it is the clear imperative of this week’s parashah to not hit people with a Shevet / Rod, and to take care and hear the cry of the vulnerable and powerless in our society:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ כׇּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן׃ אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתֽוֹ׃

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me:” (Exodus 22:20-22)

And others will claim that this week’s Parashah speaks exactly to their actions:

וְשַׁתִּ֣י אֶת־גְּבֻלְךָ֗ מִיַּם־סוּף֙ וְעַד־יָ֣ם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וּמִמִּדְבָּ֖ר עַד־הַנָּהָ֑ר כִּ֣י ׀ אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּיֶדְכֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת יֹשְׁבֵ֣י הָאָ֔רֶץ וְגֵרַשְׁתָּ֖מוֹ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ׃ לֹֽא־תִכְרֹ֥ת לָהֶ֛ם וְלֵאלֹֽהֵיהֶ֖ם בְּרִֽית׃ לֹ֤א יֵשְׁבוּ֙ בְּאַרְצְךָ֔ פֶּן־יַחֲטִ֥יאוּ אֹתְךָ֖ לִ֑י כִּ֤י תַעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֖ לְמוֹקֵֽשׁ׃ (שמות כג: לא-לג)

I will set your borders from the Sea of Reeds to the Sea of Philistia, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the Land into your hands, and you will drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. They shall not remain in your Land, lest they cause you to sin against Me; for you will serve their gods—and it will prove a snare to you.” (Exodus 23: 31-33)

The question is, can we both be part of the same Shevet – tribe, or will our profoundly different worldviews leave us as opposing tribes fighting for the future of our country?

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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