Plymouth Rock and Social Mobility

This week’s dvar Torah begins in Plymouth, MA in summer of 2014. That summer we went to stay with friends for a few day in Onset, MA, which is right at the beginning of Cape Cod. We spent one very hot day in Plymouth as stereotypical tourists in a town that is one part historical site and two parts tourist trap. As we began the day near the replica of the famed Mayflower I recalled that I had a friend who is a direct descendant of a real Pilgrim. I have a random fact in my head and now it could actually matter! So I made a call to find out which of the names on the manifest was my friend Amy’s great-great grandpa. The conversation was one part hearing about why Amy didn’t know and didn’t want to ask her mom and two parts Amy being shocked that we hadn’t spoken in three years and that literally the first thing I said was, “Who are you related to from the Mayflower? I’m in Plymouth and I need to know right now.” Turns out she’s a granddaughter of John Howland. More about Mr. Howland in a moment.

If you have been following along in the Torah readings each week you have not been disappointed. The saga of Yosef, the drama of slavery, the wonder of the plagues, the suspense of Paroh’s chase, the salvation at the sea, the majesty of The Revelation, have made sure that the Torah until now has been a real thriller. And if that is what you are looking for then this week’s Torah reading is going to be a real let down. Parshas Mishpatim is the quintessential long list of “Do This-es” and “Don’t Do That-s”. There is a bit of narrative at the end where Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai, but just a bit and much of it is rather mysterious and hard to translate. It’s such a harsh transition from the Torah being a collection of moral-filled stories to a book of regulations and ordinances that it can make you wonder. What is going on here? What kind of book is this? What is this Torah going to be?

In sense this is The Big Question of Torah study. What is the purpose of the Torah? Is it to tell our backstory? To give moral guidance? To instruct us in ritual law? Our Torah reading this week seems to argue against any of that. The Torah reading is filled with tort law and rules to understand property rights. If you were looking for “love your neighbor as yourself” guidance you would surely be surprised to find “if a man’s ox gores another ox and it miscarries . . .”

Besides our wonder at why these aspects of jurisprudence are part of the Creator’s moral guidance for us is the shock at the very first topic addressed in this section, “When you purchase a Hebrew slave . . .” Can you imagine? These people just escaped, through the miraculous hand of G-d, horrific slavery. They were treated as property, worse than cattle, their babies were ripped out of their mother’s arms at birth and thrown into the mighty Nile. They has been subject to all the horror of slavery, and the first rule is “When you purchase a Hebrew slave”?!? Shouldn’t the first rule have been, NO SLAVES! Certainly not from your brother-Hebrew!! What the what?

And now dear reader, I shall reveal to you a deep truth. But it’s a precious and fragile truth so I need you to keep it a secret just between us. Here goes. —- I don’t know everything. I mean, I know a lot, but not everything. (For example just Sunday I didn’t know where the mustard was. But my wife found it. Apparently “you have to move things in the refrigerator.” I knew that, but I guess, only in theory.) So I’ll tell you what I know and maybe at the end we’ll still have a few questions left.

The Torah is a guidebook. Its stories are there for us to glean moral rules and guidelines, both personal and communal. The stories give us the big ideas for what type of people to be. But big ideas are not sufficient. They need to be translated into practical action. Just wanting to be “a good person” without setting guidelines will either yield “being good” only when it is convenient for you or “being good” for this guy even though it is bad for that guy. What gives you the right to decide to be bad to that guy? This week’s Torah reading is about where the rubber hits the road on the big ideas we’ve studied until now. Generosity, patience, personal humility, looking for the good in others, empathy and taking action because of it, equality before the law, and justice are all ideas that get implemented in the details of this week’s Torah reading.

The Ramban and the Ohr Hachayim point out that the first of the 10 Commandments is “I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, etc.” and that parallels the first of our laws this week regarding slaves and importantly SETTING SLAVES FREE. They want to focus our attention on the idea that this servitude is not meant to be a permanent status. It is a debt that the worker has to the land owner and he pays off that debt with his work. It doesn’t change this man’s ontological status or his obligation in mitzvoth or his rights before the courts. The mitzvah is mostly focused on the obligations the boss has towards his indentured worker and the obligation he has to set him free when his time is up. The mitzvah is really about how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.

[Why is any type of servitude like this permitted? See the revealed secret, above. I’m not sure. But I have a few guesses. You might as well.]

And now we return to our friend John Howland. Mr. Howland came over as a servant to John Carver, the original governor of the new colony. But he was released from his servitude just a short time after arriving in the New World (if I recall correctly it’s because Carver died.) He then becomes a citizen and respected member of the fledgling community and eventually has a great grand-daughter who works in a Jewish Day School. In an economic sense, the servitude helped Carver access the capital that was his hard work and resourcefulness. Practically, it helped him move forward socially and economically. Perhaps the Torah’s allowance for this servitude is not anti-worker. Perhaps it is trying to create a path forward for anyone caught in a lower economic caste. In the very first law in the section on society’s rules is a way for people who are stuck to get un-stuck. The very first rule is to help someone up. The very first rule is to understand that difficult circumstances don’t change a person’s essence. The rule is one part having a servant and two parts helping a brother.

That’s pretty exciting stuff.

This week’s dvar Torah begins in Plymouth, MA in summer of 2014. That summer we went to stay with friends for a few day in Onset, MA, which is right at the beginning of Cape Cod. We spent one very hot day in Plymouth as stereotypical tourists in a town that is one part historical site and two parts tourist trap. As we began the day near the replica of the famed Mayflower I recalled that I had a friend who is a direct descendant of a real Pilgrim. I have a random fact in my head and now it could actually matter! So I made a call to find out which of the names on the manifest was my friend Amy’s great-great grandpa. The conversation was one part hearing about why Amy didn’t know and didn’t want to ask her mom and two parts Amy being shocked that we hadn’t spoken in three years and the literally the first thing I said was, “Who are you related to from the Mayflower? I’m in Plymouth and I need to know right now.” Turns out she’s a granddaughter of John Howland. More about Mr. Howland in a moment.

If you have been following along in the Torah readings each week you have not been disappointed. The saga of Yosef, the drama of slavery, the wonder of the plagues, the suspense of Paroh’s chase, the salvation at the sea, the majesty of The Revelation, have made sure that the Torah until now has been a real thriller. And if that is what you are looking for then this week’s Torah reading is going to be a real let down. Parshas Mishpatim is the quintessential long list of “Do This-es” and “Don’t Do That-s”. There is a bit of narrative at the end where Moshe ascends Mt. Sinai, but just a bit and much of it is rather mysterious and hard to translate. It’s such a harsh transition from the Torah being a collection of moral-filled stories to a book of regulations and ordinances that it can make you wonder. What is going on here? What kind of book is this? What is this Torah going to be?

In sense this is The Big Question of Torah study. What is the purpose of the Torah? Is it to tell our backstory? To give moral guidance? To instruct us in ritual law? Our Torah reading this week seems to argue against any of that. The Torah reading is filled with tort law and rules to understand property rights. If you were looking for “love your neighbor as yourself” guidance you would surely be surprised to find “if a man’s ox gores another ox and it miscarries . . .”

Besides our wonder at why these aspects of jurisprudence are part of the Creator’s moral guidance for us is the shock at the very first topic addressed in this section, “When you purchase a Hebrew slave . . .” Can you imagine? These people just escaped, through the miraculous hand of G-d, horrific slavery. They were treated as property, worse than cattle, their babies were ripped out of their mother’s arms at birth and thrown into the mighty Nile. They has been subject to all the horror of slavery, and the first rule is “When you purchase a Hebrew slave”?!? Shouldn’t the first rule have been, NO SLAVES! Certainly not from your brother-Hebrew!! What the what?

And now dear reader, I shall reveal to you a deep truth. But it’s a precious and fragile truth so I need you to keep it a secret just between us. Here goes. —- I don’t know everything. I mean, I know a lot, but not everything. (For example just Sunday I didn’t know where the mustard was. But my wife found it. Apparently “you have to move things in the refrigerator.” I knew that, but I guess, only in theory.) So I’ll tell you what I know and maybe at the end we’ll still have a few questions left.

The Torah is a guidebook. Its stories are there for us to glean moral rules and guidelines, both personal and communal. The stories give us the big ideas for what type of people to be. But big ideas are not sufficient. They need to be translated into practical action. Just wanting to be “a good person” without setting guidelines will either yield “being good” only when it is convenient for you or “being good” for this guy even though it is bad for that guy. What gives you the right to decide to be bad to that guy? This week’s Torah reading is about where the rubber hits the road on the big ideas we’ve studied until now. Generosity, patience, personal humility, looking for the good in others, empathy and taking action because of it, equality before the law, and justice are all ideas that get implemented in the details of this week’s Torah reading.

The Ramban and the Ohr Hachayim point out that the first of the 10 Commandments is “I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, etc.” and that parallels the first of our laws this week regarding slaves and importantly SETTING SLAVES FREE. They want to focus our attention on the idea that this servitude is not meant to be a permanent status. It is a debt that the worker has to the land owner and he pays off that debt with his work. It doesn’t change this man’s ontological status or his obligation in mitzvoth or his rights before the courts. The mitzvah is mostly focused on the obligations the boss has towards his indentured worker and the obligation he has to set him free when his time is up. The mitzvah is really about how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.

[Why is any type of servitude like this permitted? See the revealed secret, above. I’m not sure. But I have a few guesses. You might as well.]

And now we return to our friend John Howland. Mr. Howland came over as a servant to John Carver, the original governor of the new colony. But he was released from his servitude just a short time after arriving in the New World (if I recall correctly it’s because Carver died.) He then becomes a citizen and respected member of the fledgling community and eventually has a great grand-daughter who works in a Jewish Day School. In an economic sense, the servitude helped Carver access the capital that was his hard work and resourcefulness. Practically, it helped him move forward socially and economically. Perhaps the Torah’s allowance for this servitude is not anti-worker. Perhaps it is trying to create a path forward for anyone caught in a lower economic caste. In the very first law in the section on society’s rules is a way for people who are stuck to get un-stuck. The very first rule is to help someone up. The very first rule is to understand that difficult circumstances don’t change a person’s essence. The rule is one part having a servant and two parts helping a brother.

That’s pretty exciting stuff.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now one precious granddaughter.
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