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Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

“If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets;
it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep?…” (Exodus 22:25)

Parashat Mishpatim includes a list of 52 varied mitzvot, or commandments, defining personal responsibility. It is the Torah’s first attempt to define a functioning civil society. What distinguishes the Torah from other law codes is the connection it makes between personal behavior and social norms.

Mishpatim declares, ”Lo ta-anun, You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. Im aneh ta-aneh, If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to me… v’haragti etchem, And I will kill you…” (Ex. 22:21-23). Widows and orphans (and strangers) are Biblical code words for society’s most vulnerable (some scholars say a Biblical widow is someone with no kin whatsoever to protect her); they are completely dependent upon the goodwill of the community for survival.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089 – 1164; Spanish poet, Hebrew grammarian, and commentator) notices the Hebrew shifts from plural to singular in the command and reverts to plural for the punishment. He infers from this two principles of individual responsibility: to not oppress the poor and weak and to speak out when you witness an act of oppression. Ibn Ezra is saying Jewish law does not permit you to be an idle bystander in the presence of injustice; inaction makes you complicit. It also implies God’s collective punishment is a response to individual behavior (or lack thereof). This is the moral imperative driving Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 1944 pronouncement, in response to the Shoah, or Holocaust: “Some are guilty; all are responsible.”

The juxtaposition of this expectation of personal responsibility with the revelation at Mt. Sinai implies protecting the powerless is a sacred act.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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