Dvar Torah, Parshat Mishpatim Feb 18, 2023
I had the honour of presenting the Dvar Torah this past Shabbat at my synagogue, Kehillat Beth Israel of Ottawa. This is a slightly condensed version of what I said:
In this week’s Parshah, Moses teaches the people how to live justly in several areas of life, from how to treat a servant to the laws concerning wrongful death and damages, sexual morality, and proper treatment of the widow, orphan and stranger. If we fail to take care of these people, God’s anger will be directed against us.
We are commanded on the proper conduct of courts, that our judges must rule justly and not favour either the poor or the powerful. We are told to behave justly even toward our enemies. Only after these instructions on how to deal properly with our fellow man, are we instructed in some of the details of the proper service of God.
In return for being faithful to the law, we are promised the possession of the land of Israel, rain in its season, protection from disease, and that our endeavors will prosper. When we go into the land, we are to uproot the evil practices of the former inhabitants and to follow God’s commandments when we live there. If we are true to God’s laws, God will afflict our enemies, so that they will flee from us, and deliver the land into our hands.
Moreover, we are promised that the land will be delivered to us a bit at a time and not all at once, lest it be left desolate and be taken over by wild beasts. After the commandments are recited, we are told that the elders of the people went up to the base of the mountain and had a covenental meal in the presence of God. They accepted the deal. We will do it and we will listen, they said.
When I think of this week’s parsha, I am struck by the way it links justice with our possession of the land. We must live justly and in return the land of Israel will be ours to inhabit in peace and prosperity.
What is extraordinary, is that these ancient words seem like they could have been written yesterday in response to the events happening right now. In Israel presently there is a great public dispute over the proper role of the courts. Members of the government would have us believe that Israel’s judges are out of control, while the tens of thousands of demonstrators and many of our own Jewish leaders here in North America believe that the government is about to take away the human rights of Israelis. The President has intervened with ideas for a compromise. Whatever one’s position on the proposed changes to the legal system, one of the complaints against both the elected politicians and the judges, is that criminal behaviour and corruption are tolerated among the highest leaders of the country. Very much in the spirit of this week’s parsha, people cry out that the very existence of the State is at stake.
While we acknowledge the gravity of the present crisis in Israel, at the very same time, we must reckon with the awesome blessing that we, the Jewish people, have been restored to our land. In a few weeks we will mark the anniversary of the Israeli declaration of independence. On May 12, 1948 the executive of the Yishuv voted, 6 to 4 to declare independence. Why was the vote so close?
In a podcast that was released this week, Daniel Gordis tells us that before that vote Yigal Yadin, commander of the Haganah, was asked whether they would survive if they declared independence. His answer was, “I don’t know. It’s 50-50.” By the narrowest margin, the leadership of the Yishuv decided to take the risk. They chose to transform the situation of the Jewish people from objects of history to subjects, from victims of other nations to a free people that would govern themselves in their aboriginal territory.
By making that decision and going to war, only to see our enemies fleeing before them, they changed the lives of everyone of us who came after. In the weeks to come, we would like invite members of the congregation who wish to do so, to speak from this place about their own experiences in Israel. Today, I will say a few words about my own experience.
When I was growing up, I was the only Jew in my class. Being Jewish was what made me different from everyone else I met. Joining the Zionist movement and going to Israel for the first time at the age of 17, I discovered what it meant to be surrounded by people like me, to be one of the many and not one set apart. I got to meet young people who believed in the future of their country and that they were building a better future. They learned from their parents where the Jewish people had come from and the importance of being able to defend ourselves, discovering the joy one could have from an orange tree or a well tended field.
Later in life, I became deeply engaged in the debate about Israel’s struggle with its enemies and how Israelis could fulfill the vision of the founders and build a free and democratic Jewish state. In keeping with this week’s parsha, the debate about Israel’s future is intertwined with issues of how to live justly in the land, and how to deal justly, even with our enemies. This has become one of the great interests of my life and I thank you for listening to what I have to say on the subject.
Let us all pray for the wellbeing of the land and people of Israel, that with God’s help they will continue to build a country in which justice will prevail, and that our enemies will flee before us. May it be God’s will that the Jewish people will live in our land, in peace and prosperity, dealing justly with the widow, the orphan and the stranger, for generations to come.