Maury Grebenau

Surfacing the Cost of Easy Answers

There is a significant transition in the Torah that begins in the Yitro and is completed in Mishpatim. We pivot away from the stories and personalities of the book of Bereishit and early Shemot where we have role models to emulate and moving towards dense laws. Fresh eyes are needed to look at the mandates of Hashem and recognize that they too offer fertile ground for understanding how to be our best selves.

Still struggling with the difficulties of the war, I hoped to find some guidance in the parsha. I found lots of guidance but much of it was contradictory and seems impossible to reconcile. Surprisingly this gave me a measure of comfort since it feels like a very accurate echo of the current complex challenge of trying to free the hostages while making the area around Gaza (and the North) safe for families to return, all while holding fast to our morality and values. There seem to be contradictory needs that can’t be reconciled and are also all far too important to compromise on. I share here my noticings in the hopes that it offers some food for thought and perhaps even a little comfort for others who also feel similarly.

The Torah tells us that kidnapping is a capital offense (Shemot 21:16). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 86a) tells us that this is the prohibition of theft mentioned in last week’s Aseret HaDibrot (10 commandments). We are told that only this type of theft is so severe that it could be listed with murder and adultery. Each person is a world unto themselves and to assume dominance over another for your own nefarious purposes is to deny that they are made in G-d’s image. How are we to respond to those who have so thoroughly disregarded the idea of Tzelem Elokim (being created in G-d’s image)? How could we not do everything necessary to free the hostages regardless of the collateral damage?

On the other hand, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) tells us that the refrain that we must recall that we were slaves in Egypt is mentioned in a Torah 36 times. In relation to many of the commandments we are asked to recall being downtrodden and put ourselves in the shoes of others, to be empathetic. This seems to send a message to the soldiers & our people that while we must do what is necessary, we must not lose sight of our values and our empathy.

But still there seem to be times when empathy seems to be the wrong emotion. The Torah tells us that when someone tunnels into your house to rob you with full intent to kill, if necessary, then we are given full permission to kill them first. The pasuk states that “they have no blood” (Shemot 22:1). As Rashi explains – this is not murder. We must not shy away from spilling blood – we need to defend ourselves and our families.

This past week our shul in Dallas heard from Yossi Landau, a founding member of ZAKA, an organization of first responders that both tries to save people and involves themselves in the holy task of collecting the blood and any parts of the body for burial after a terror attack or other unnatural death. Yossi heads the southern region of ZAKA and recounted some of his experiences responding on October 7th. It was very difficult to hear the ongoing trauma for these first responders. It brought home the need for these families to be able to live in safety and security back in their homes. Not just the families that lost people on October 7th (which is truly all of Israel since there are zero degrees of separation within the Israeli population) but also all those who have been involved in the search and rescue, and those who have tended to the injured and the murdered. They have all been impacted to their core, they are in need of refuat hanefesh (healing of the soul) and they need to know that this can never happen again.

Yossi told a heartbreaking story of coming upon a car where a married couple has been shot and killed in the front seats. He heard the voice of a small girl who was crouching down under the back seats that had been folded down, perhaps a final act of protection by her deceased parents. This young girl, not even 4, asked him, “Attah meshlanu?” – “are you on our side?”. When he responded that he was, she demanded a sign before she was willing to leave her hiding space in the car. That this young girl should be living in a world where she needs to be able to ask those questions in order to survive is beyond words.

My final thought from the parsha stems from the instruction that when a slave decides to remain with his master after the 6 year period the Torah tells us we must pierce his ear (Shemot 21:7). He refuses his freedom and we leave him with a sign to remember the consequences of inaction and doing what is easy. It is easier to just do the work for your master and not have to feel responsible for the well being of yourself or your family. We must surface the cost of inaction for this person. His ear is pierced because he has failed to hear the message of the commandment to be subservient to Hashem only. He has not internalized the sense of responsibility that is part and parcel of freedom. While the many messages in our parsha and in the reality of the war in Israel are complex and defy easy answers, what is clear is that we must grapple with them with a sense of true responsibility. The cost of inaction, of giving in to pressure, are too great. I do not know what the answers are, but I pray that Hashem gives those who are in positions of power the wisdom and humility to ground themselves in our Torah values and make the best choice possible in these impossibly complex and weighty decision.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Maury Grebenau has worked in Jewish day school for 20 years, including leading two Jewish schools for a decade. Rabbi Grebenau has written a number of articles on educational leadership and current issues including teen health and school technology use. His articles have been published in Phi Delta Kappan, Principal Leadership and Hayidion, among others. He currently co-leads a program that supports administrators in Jewish day schools.
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