Midrash Tanchuma Mishpatim: Finding God in the palaces of tyrants

I would like to offer a simple but controversial idea that I see in the Midrash Tanchuma. I propose that the Midrash is sending us a message reminding us about a fundamental approach to believing in God that we have overlooked or become numb to.  The reason for this may be the fact that we learn Jewish concepts at an early age and don’t re-examine them through an adult lens. The Midrash, however,  loves to  shake the ground beneath our feet, to explore that which we take for granted. And to force us to reexamine our most basic beliefs.

Parshat Mishpatim is the perfect setting to do so. According to the Sefer Hachinuch there are 53 laws in our Parsha. Midrash Tanchuma concentrates on those that protect the dignity and well being of the poor and disenfranchised. Much emphasis is placed on the haughtiness and cruelty of lending with interest. Should a rich man refuse to loan to a poor man, the Midrash warns that God can then reverse the circumstances and make the rich man into a poor man.  An underlying message is that your money is not yours. It was on loan to you as a test. If you don’t know what to do with it, you will learn the hard way.

 Before sharing my conclusion I will first present several sweeping moral insights that the Midrash shares.  

The undignified nature of power

 Midrash Tanchuma sets the ground rules for Mankind’s experience with power. Although some may argue that not much has changed today, nations in the ancient world seem to have defined their greatness by the pursuit of power for the purpose of exploitation. The Midrash expressed it this way;

 The way the world works, whomever is most powerful need not act with justice. Rather they trample justice, rob and steal with impunity…In judgement they show favoritism to their friends and relatives.” 

 Yet we believe that  “God, the King of kings loves justice.”

 Power corrupts –  as reflected in the remarkable story of Onkelos

 The next example of the abuse of power comes from an most unusual setting – a conversation between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his nephew – our great sage, Onkelos:

 “Hadrian’s nephew, desired to convert to Judaism, but he feared his uncle’s wrath. He told his uncle: “I want to engage in business.” … Hadrian responded: “Look for merchandise that is low in price because it is ignored and deal in it, for it will ultimately rise in price and you will profit from it.” Then Aquilas (Onkelos) went to Israel and studied the Torah.”

Ultimately, Hadrian found out about his nephew’s conversion and confronted him. Onkelos replied that he was just following his uncle’s advice. The moral teachings of Judaism were derided by the world but were sure to be appreciated in the future.  

As abhorrent as this probably was for Hadrian, what is most telling is when Hadrian’s advisor suggested that Onkelos be put to death. Although he certainly committed a crime punishable by death, the advisor made a grave political blunder. He forgot that those in power are not subject to laws they impose on everyone else. Instead of agreeing with his advisor, Hadrian declared that his nephew was destined to convert in his mother’s womb. Perhaps realizing that he was now out of favor with Hadrian, his advisor took his own life. 

 A recipe for global harmony

In another glimpse into divine morality, the Midrash explores what it is that causes human beings to be in conflict with each other. What prevents us from reaching exalted new heights? The Midrash expresses it in a most creative way that gets right to the heart of the matter:

“…If the world could only conduct itself in a way that one person could accept rebuke from another, serenity would come to the world, goodness, and blessing would prevail and evil will vanish from the world…”

I would venture to say that the scarcity of this character trait is why tyrannies can flourish and corporations fail.  Because, as we all know, it is rare for someone to tell a dictator, or even their boss, that their ideas are flawed, unworkable or will cause great harm to those that are most vulnerable. The Midrash challenges us to reach a level of higher consciousness. Suspend our egos. Put our natural defenses aside.  Maintain an open mind and accept criticism and rebuke. This is especially critical for those in positions of power. 

God is willing to give up truth for the sake of peace

In yet another glimpse into divine justice the Midrash makes a counterintuitive observation about the incompatible nature of truth and peace:

“Rabbi Joshua the son of Korcha said:… Whenever there is absolute justice, peace cannot prevail, and where there is peace, there cannot be absolute justice. Through what kind of justice does peace prevail? It is in the justice achieved through reaching a compromise…

Think about 2 litigants, each are convinced they are right. When the judge rules in favor of one, we call that “justice.” But the losing party may feel he was wronged and may not be at “peace” with the opposing party or the judge. If the judge works out a compromise, there may be “peace” between the litigants. While strict “justice” may not have been served, God is willing to put justice aside for the sake of peace.

God’s moral mission statement

The last in a series of moral insights from Midrash Tanchuma pertains to the subject of equality. For anyone who thought socialism was a new idea, according to Midrash Tanchuma, King David asked the following question about 3,000 years ago. God’s answer speaks volumes of what God wants from mankind. 

“King David said to the Holy One, Blessed Be He: Lord of the Universe, ‘May the world be (made equal) before God’ (Psalms. 61:8), that is, make Your world either rich or poor… He (God) answered: ‘.. if all people are either rich or poor, who will perform acts of loving kindness?’”

What is expected of the Jewish People? Besides keeping the commandments and revering God (Ecclesiastes 12:13) the conversation between God and King David shows that God expects from Mankind a  heightened degree of sensitivity to the poor. Once again, this flies in the face of what those in power take as their right – to treat people like objects that they have acquired.

Finding God through the flaws of Man

Among ancient civilizations, tens of thousands of men would get up in the morning and go to war to help their country dominate others. The reward would come from pillaging, enslaving and brutalizing those who succumbed to their onslaught – especially women.

I believe that the purpose of these insights is the Midrash’s way of reminding us of a fundamental attribute of God that we have lost sight of. While the attainment of power by man is a license to subjugate and debase others, God’s absolute power is manifested in the protection of the dignity and well being of the poor and disenfranchised. I believe that if we can put aside what we know about God, this stark contrast that the Midrash is painting can be a source of faith in God.

Do we express this very idea 3 times a day? 

In the opening of the Shemona Esrei (silent prayer) we address the God that is – “the Great, the Powerful, the Awe-inspiring, and supreme.”  What does the all-powerful God do with all that power? What would anyone do with so much power? 

No, quite the opposite. 

The next words are:  God is the “bestower of beneficent kindness. 

If this was obvious to you, you’re fortunate. For me, it was an admission that my senses have been dulled to God’s counterintuitive, an attribute of Justice.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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