Idolatry and the Abuse of Power

Parashat Mishpatim
Rosh Chodesh Adar 5781

Parashat Mishpatim means, “civil laws.” This portion follows the revelation at Mt. Sinai. After communicating the “Ten Commandments,” the foundational principles for a stable, moral society, revelation continues in the form of case law. The conjunctive letter, vav appended to the phrase, v’eleh hamishpatim, inextricably links the two moments at Sinai. Rashi quotes the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael and Midrash Rabba establishing the powerful implication of this interrelationship: the laws governing civil society, the authority to interpret them, and the governing structures required to implement them from one generation to the next, are as much a part of the continual process of revelation as the ten foundational commandments themselves.

The topics are varied and seem disparate, even random. The laws cover legal principles for adjudicating theft, bodily injury, property damages, and guardianship that includes borrowing, leasing, or watching another’s possession. The laws cover protocols for judges and witnesses. The parasha describes adjudication of cases of negligence resulting in miscarriage, and cases of arson. The parasha also teaches mitzvot about the sanctity of the land during shemittah, the sabbatical year, including when to plant and when not to plant or harvest. It covers sacred times in the Jewish calendar. One may not offer an animal sacrifice if the animal is under eight days old. Tithes are required for Levitical services. First born animals must be redeemed from Kohanim, priests, and lost animals must be returned to their owners, even if that requires feeding and housing the animal in the interim. Animals suffering under their burdens must be relieved, even when enmity obtains between the upstander and the owner. Meat improperly slaughtered may not be consumed. The Torah does not distinguish between mitzvot between people and mitzvot between people and the Creator. Since the Torah intends for us to build and live holistic lives as complete people, both trajectories intersect throughout this text.

The laws of theft actually open with the case of the eved ivri, the Jewish thief who must work off payment plus a fine through indentured servitude. The horrific, dehumanizing perpetuation of slavery in this country formed the foundation upon which America’s economy, stratified culture and political life relied from before the republic. The palpable pain and rage that have emerged from this society’s recognition of this history, as well as the pain and rage that continue to erupt into violence at its denial, force me to offer a brief contextualization of servitude in the Torah. This parasha clarifies parameters of both the Jewish indentured servant as well as the Canaanite slave. The indentured servant cannot remain in servitude in perpetuity at the master’s behest. Should he choose to remain in his master’s home, that decision is ritualized by piercing the ear into the doorpost of the house, becoming literally joined to its threshold. Even then, however, human freedom is too precious to squander, and that servant must be released in the Jubilee year. Canaanite slaves were generally not treated as chattel. The laws in this parasha regarding the eved cna’ani, the non-Israelite slave, protect him from bodily injury and create legal vehicles for integration into Israelite society. In the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Kinyan, Hilchot Avadim, chapter 5 and particularly chapter 8, Maimonides enumerates multiple ways for the non-Jewsh slave to gain freedom. (For a deeper historical and legal analysis of slavery in the Ancient near East and in Jewish legal sources, see, Nathan Andersen,Slave Systems of the Old Testament and the American South: A Study in Contrasts, and David Cobin, A Brief Look at the Jewish Law of Manumission – Freedom: Beyond the United States) The word, “slave” is overdetermined in America precisely because this country must reckon honestly with its barborous past in order to realign itself with the humane ideals its mythology purports to cherish. The texts of this parasha, furthermore, have been so misconstrued in pursuit of “biblical” justification for the abject dehumanization of millions of people, that the word, ‘eved should perhaps be more accurately translated as “servant” or, “documented dependent” than as, “slave,” so different was the biblical institution from the American. Despite these significant differences that make the two institutions incomparable, today’s world cannot afford any system of forced social control.

The corpus of laws in this text of the covenant at Sinai is striking. When one reads through the parasha and lists the laws, they can be grouped accordingly: Chapter 21:12-22:3, includes laws of human bodily injury or some form of aggressive violence: murder, accidental homicide, premeditated murder, bodily injury of a parent, kidnapping, verbal abuse of a parent using God’s name, battery, injury to a slave, injury to a pregnant woman, lex talionis, injury caused by a moving object or a stationary object, theft. Next, 22:4-23:10 includes laws of damages to property, seduction of unmarried women, and the imperative to lend to the poor and to protect the vulnerable by limiting collateral taken for loans, ensuring fair trials by prohibiting bribes, and protecting the land from agricultural exploitation. All of these laws protect the vulnerable against the potential abuse of power. Murder victims, victims of theft, unmarried women, servants, slaves, owners and guardians, Levites, the poor, all occupy precarious positions of vulnerable status requiring legal protections. The mitzvot in this parasha involve situations in which there is the potential for an abuse of power. The Chizkuni and Ibn Ezra even suggest that the prohibition against beastiality is an example of an abuse of power, coming immediately after the offense of seducing a minor. “Just as the minor girl is so vulnerable to such venal manipulation, so too, the animal cannot defend against against human sexual abuse.” (22:18) Masters can potentially abuse servants, men can potentially abuse women, guardians and owners are in vulnerable relationships to each other regarding the responsibility for protecting possessions or animals, the land can be abused and exploited just as we can become enslaved by our working seven days/week. Litigants are potentially abused by a dysfunctional judiciary and dishonest judges.

Counter-balancing these laws is verse 22:19, Whoever offers a sacrifice to any god other than Hashem shall be executed. Seemingly out of context, embedded in the corpus of civil law, is a restatement of the prohibition against idolatry. Then, even more striking, the parasha’s literary coda consists of three sections: the sacred calendar of pilgrimage holidays, an expanded explication of the prohibition against idolatry, and then a covenantal ritual consecrating the relationship between God and Bene Yisrael. The calendar of holy time enables us to transcend the mundane and bridge the distance between our mortality of an experience of the sacred. The covenantal ritualization included a sacrificial offering, a cleansing of the people through sprinkling them with the life-force represented by blood, and a declaration of commitment by stating, All that Hashem has commanded we will faithfully do! (24:7). Moshe, Aharon and the elders then ate a sacred meal, and experienced a vision of God’s feet sitting on a throne, supported by a sapphire foundation. This ritual, like all rituals, played a sacramental role. The ritual transformed the people into a nation of law with a higher purpose. The calendar structured the passing of time, an essential component to the cultural identity of any people with a shared historical memories, vision, and purpose. Both of these final elements would have been enough to elevate the authority of case law as a dimension of continual revelation. Indeed, already next week the Torah will describe plans and a process for constructing a facsimile of Mt. Sinai that the people of Israel would transport with them during their travels. The Mishkan effectively transformed the mountain and God’s presence from a vertical to a horizontal plane, ensuring that every law be tested for authenticity against God’s will for our people. All of this would have been sufficient. Why are there, in addition, inserted in-between the calendar and the covenantal meal, ten verses warning against idolatry?

Moshe said to the people:

When My angel goes before you and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I annihilate them, you shall not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practices, but shall tear them down and smash their pillars to bits. You shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will remove sickness from your midst. No woman in your land shall miscarry or be barren. I will let you enjoy the full count of your days. I will send forth My terror before you, and I will throw into panic all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn tail before you. I will send a plague, a “Wasp,” ahead of you, and it shall drive out before you the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites. I will not drive them out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and possess the land. 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. (23:23-33)

Israelite society will enjoy blessing, security, children, and a future, only in an environment cleansed of idolatry. In addition, idolatry is so powerful, and satisfies something so deep within the human being, and its seductive nature is so irresistible, that all cautions must be exercised to guard against its power. Idolatry cannot be eradicated quickly; its elimination must take time, slowly, incrementally, lest the people suffer trauma represented by being devoured by wild animals. Why here? What does idolatry mean, when set over and against a corpus of civil laws that protect the vulnerable against the corruption of abuses of power?

Rabbi Kalonimous Kalman haLevi Epstein, 18th century Krakow, provided a way of answering this question in his commentary, Meor vashemesh. He wrote:

Is not God omniscient? Couldn’t God have removed all of the idolaters from the land of Israel without wild animals attacking and decimating the population? The answer is that God has placed two pathways before humanity. God placed human beings before two pathways and said, “Choose the path of life.” God endowed human beings with the capacity to make this choice, precisely so that humanity could learn to recoil from evil and choose the pathway of life….This means that humans live on an existential journey. This means that every day, at every turn of events, in every moment, every individual must conquer their most base instincts and break the yearnings [of his own ego.]

One can already see that R. Kalonimous interpreted this unusual description of idolatry and its allure over the nation as a representation of an internal struggle and not as an external manifestation of the worship only of literal idols. His language is clear: one is to “smash” one’s ta’avot, one’s yearning for evil. Set in the context of the civil laws of Mishpatim, I read his explanation as the internal struggle against the human predisposition to grab power and then abuse that power constantly for further gains. Indeed, the avarice for power is never satiated. R. Kalnimous continued:

Every day, a person is challenged to submit [his ego], little by little, breaking his yearning for the materiality of the world. Even when he has succeeded in conquering his ambitions and overcome his desires for control in the world (literally, “over the ta’avat hagshmiim”), one must constantly introspect with ever increasing nuance, because what a person thought at first was a good deed might actually have turned out to be a snare laid by his ego….This is the constant war with the ego (lit. yetzer hara).

I understand that what R. Kalonimous meant here is that even when a person overcomes their desire for actual control or possession in the world, nevertheless, any act the person performs with the unconscious purpose of gratifying one’s own need to think highly of oneself also constitutes an act of idolatry. Idolatry, in this sense, remains an interior condition that feeds the ego. This is a pathway of constant self-worship, a form of worshipping the work of our own hands. Ultimately, for R. Kalonimous, actions driven even unconsciously by such a motive are driven by avarice for control and power.

Finally, he wrote:

The more a person struggles to dedicate all of his actions to service of the Creator, the more deeply his ego will awaken in his heart/mind….Only constant self-awareness will overcome the internal forces….There are three layers of internal struggle in this war that one must penetrate. The first is alluded to in the parasha with the word tzir’ah, “the wasp” that will attack you as idolaters. The curse of the “wasp” represents immaturity, because the word, tzirah alludes to the word, tza’ir. The second is taught in the phrase, “I will not banish idolaters immediately, all at once.” This means that the subjugation of your ego must be the result of a process over time in which you eventually turn towards Me [on your own.] Finally, the text says, “otherwise the land will become desolate.” The word, “desolate” is shemamah, which echoes the word, shamayim, heaven. This means that human beings must make the ground on which they walk, their foundation, spiritual, and not materialistic.

According to R. Kalonimous, essentially, the war against idolatry is internal, not external. There are no idolaters outside of ourselves. The idolatry is inside of each of us. I believe that it is important today, to generalize much of the sacred history of our people to all of humanity. Humanity was created with the capacity to make choices and to grow, to introspect, to understand our motivations, to control our egos. The idols exist inside of us. It is ourselves that we worship. Our own egos, accomplishments, possessions. Our possessions include our entitlements and our predisposition to self aggrandizement and praise.

The implications are clear. The interior struggle against idolatry is set within a context of civil laws, all of which identify a multiplicity of circumstances requiring legal protection of the vulnerable against the abuse of power. The pathway of evil is the pathway of the abuse of power. That pathway is paved with a society’s willingness to tolerate these abuses, with elected representatives willingly ignoring the abuse of power in order to protect their own. The Torah is teaching us that God has endowed humanity with the powers required to curb our own egos. That would allow for expressions of compassion and kindness, and a commitment to justice tempered by mercy and understanding. God will not program us, however, wrote Rabbi Kalonimous, and force us on the pathway of humility. We have to look inwards and isolate the sources of our own arrogance if we are to protect the world from the indignities, cruelty, pain and suffering that we continue to inflict. The urge to hold on to power intoxicates. Watch the proceedings of the current Senate trial of the past president of the United States. As recorded footage plays of police officers being beaten and crushed in doorways, screaming in pain as a frenzied mob pushes through its path of destruction, elected Senators turn their listless eyes away from the screen and, in what Sartre would call, “bad faith,” attend to the insipid, mundane task of paperwork.

The Torah’s message is clear. Civil law is our daily manifestation of standing at Sinai and living in covenant with the Creator. All we have to do is be honest with ourselves, and stand there in awe and humility, bringing Sinai to every interaction we each have daily with the magnificent diversity of humanity living on earth.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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