Tag Archives: Jehu

Have You Murdered and Taken Possession? Thoughts on Parashat Mishpatim

18 Feb

Delivered as a Guest Sermon at Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, Boca Raton, FL, 2/18/23.

My cousin, Chuck Edelson made aliyah to Israel in 1950. He has lived for the last several decades on a moshav where he has worked hard as a farmer producing delicious citrus fruit and living the Zionist dream of making the desert bloom. He has also devoted his life to his avocation of art. His works in multiple media have appeared in exhibitions and galleries around Israel. 

Chuck has lived the fullness of the history of the State of Israel through its great blessings and its worst of tragedies. He lost his daughter in a terror attack. He writes in his book how that event affected his art work: 

“After my daughter, Michal, was killed in a terrorist attack in 1974, soon after the Yom Kippur War, I stopped painting, because to paint required a concentration and pressure that were more than I could handle, and turned to sculpture, whose physical demands were to a great degree therapeutic. Not surprisingly, my choice of subjects centered around the biblical stories of the sacrifice of Isaac and the daughter of Yiphtach.” (Yonatan Charles “Chuck” Edelson (b. 1929), The Last Amateur, 2010, p. 78.)

Many of Chuck’s works are also centered another Biblical story of harrowing violence: Kerem Navot, the Vineyard of Naboth (I Kings 21).

Ariella and I with our son Noam visited Chuck and his family at their moshav home last month when we were in Israel. Chuck is now 93 and looked and sounded marvelous. He reveled in taking us through a converted cow barn that now serves as his art gallery. Ariella and Noam were there for the first time, and it was my first time there in nearly 30 years. We were all amazed by Chuck’s vast output of works and their emotional depth. 

Chuck repeatedly showed us different interpretations of his of the Kerem Navot story. As a parting gift, he gave me this sculpture depicting that scene. 

Kerem Navot is a remarkable and disturbing story in I Kings 21 and does not get as much attention as it should. 

In brief, Ahab, the King of Israel, covets the vineyard of Navoth just outside his palace. Ahab reaches out to Navoth and makes a generous offer to purchase the vineyard. Navoth says that the vineyard is his family’s vineyard for generations, and it is not for sale. Ahab is dejected and reports his failure to his Phoenician wife Jezebel, who is portrayed in Kings as the evil outsider who has a corrupting influence on Israel. Jezebel calls out her goons and puts a hit on Navoth. We’ll pick up here with the text: 

(15) As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Go and take possession of the vineyard which Naboth the Jezreelite refused to sell you for money; for Naboth is no longer alive he is dead.” (16) When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out for the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite to take

possession of it. (17) Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: (18) “Go down and confront King Ahab of Israel who [resides] in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard; he has gone down there to take possession of it. (19) Say to him, ‘Thus said the LORD: הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession? Thus said the LORD: In the very place where the dogs lapped up Naboth’s blood, the dogs will lap up your blood too.’” (Here is another interpretation of I Kings 21 by Chuck Edelson through he medium of collage. Compare to the sculpture above.)    

I’d like to propose that this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, is a direct response to this story. On a surface level, I’ll point out, Ex. 21:14:

When one party schemes against another

and kills through treachery, you shall take

that person from My very altar to be put to


For a deeper explanation on Parashat Mishpatim’s response to Kerem Navot, I turn to my colleague Rabbi Ed Feld, a distinguished Conservative rabbi and scholar. You might recognize his name as the Editor-in-Chief of Siddur Lev Shalem and Mahzor Lev Shalem. 

Rabbi Feld recently published a masterpiece, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets and Kings That Birthed the Torah

Rabbi Feld draws upon contemporary academic Bible scholarship and archeology to paint vivid pictures of the historical origins of three major codes of law in the Torah. Today’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, also known as the Covenant Code, is one of those three, along with Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code of Leviticus. 

I’ll leave for another day discussion of whether the Torah in its entirety was literally transcribed by Moses from God on Mount Sinai. Scholarly evidence doesn’t support that. Rather, Feld uncovers for us our ancestors’ judicial genius in the face of repeated crises and upheavals. In this trend, I see the hand of God guiding us on a path toward justice.  

Focusing on Parashat Mishpatim, Rabbi Feld takes us into the book of Kings. It’s about a hundred years since the united kingdom of David and Solomon was split into the entities of the Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The Bible describes Ahab and his court in a negative light. Elijah and his prophetic heir Elisha call out the injustice in Ahab’s palace. Elisha ultimately anoints a king named Jehu who the Bible  characterizes as a great hero. The letters that spell his name are you, heh, vav, the same letters that spells the personal name of the God of Israel. Jehu champions the God of Israel. He does away with the idol worship prevalent in the realm of Ahab and Jezebel. His household reigns for another century, and it’s a time of judicial, social and religious reform. According to Feld and the scholarship from which he draws, Jehu’s reforms are reflected in the Covenant Code of Exodus. There are strong parallels between Jehu and a later reformer, King Josiah of Judah, whose reign is credited with spawning the Book of Deuteronomy. That’s a separate section of Feld’s book. To focus on Jehu and Parashat Mishpatim, here are some poignant quotes from Rabbi Feld: 

“What distinguishes this law code, first of all, is its ethical bent. While other Near Eastern codes differentiate between nobles and freemen, the Covenant Code makes no such distinction. Even slaves are treated as persons, though there is some differentiation between their status in the law and that of freemen. The exhortations at the end of the code affirm the ethical behavior demanded of each individual, even when there can be no judicial enforcement. A distinction is made between the Israelite and the foreigner, especially in the slave law, but even one’s “enemy” deserves kind behavior. Even the stranger—that is, the nonnative, or noncitizen—should not be oppressed. Secondly, the code is not simply a civil code regulating judicial processes and everyday behaviors of people: it is a code that demands the exclusive worship of the God of Israel. Civil and religious law are intertwined… (Edward Feld, The Book of Revolutions: The Battles of Priests, Prophets, and Kings That Birthed the Torah, The Jewish Publication Society, Kindle Edition, p. 36.)

“The [Covenant] [C]ode reflects the religious and ethical principles fought for by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Thus, the very revolution instigated by these two prophets in Northern Israel resulted in the first law code recorded in the Bible. And central to its authoritative role is the very idea of covenant, a critical political concept of Northern Israel… (39)

“What triumphed with the revolution of Jehu was a prophetic vision: Israel stood in relation to Israel’s God, Adonai; the two were attached to each other, covenanted with each other. Israel’s God demanded exclusive worship, the exercise of uncorrupted justice, and the formation of a society in which the least among them was cared for. In return, the people Israel would receive God’s protective care. God will be “an enemy to your enemies” (23:22) and “God will bless your bread and your water and will remove sickness from your midst” (23:25). The code is a fusion of the culture of the Near East, the new reality of an increasingly wealthy Northern Israelite confederation, and prophetic ideals. This fusion creates a new national consciousness, a covenanted relation between Israel and its God. If the people Israel remain loyal to this covenant, God will protect them. God and Israel are related to each other, covenanted with each other. Indeed, the latter prophets in Northern Israel, Amos and Hosea, would describe the covenantal relationship as that of husband and wife, or parent and child, metaphors for the most intimate of relationships” (39-40).

Parashat Mishpatim is a direct response to the Vineyard of Navot and the atmosphere of injustice in which it that story is set. 

Since spending that day last month with Chuck, I can’t get out of my mind Eliyahu Hanavi’s phrase

הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

I have been following world events recently through the lenses of that verse, and I now have deeper understanding of my cousin’s obsession with it. 

הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

That’s what the people of Turkey are now saying about their leaders. No, the government didn’t cause the earthquake. But their negligence and corruption—their payoffs from builders who refused to abide by any sensible building code—led to catastrophic loss of life. 

הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

We have our share of problems in our county. This has been another week of senseless gun violence. A mass shooting at Michigan State University. Two shootings outside synagogues in Los Angeles as people were leaving morning minyan.  The 5th anniversary of Parkland. In the United States, people get shot in schools, synagogues, churches, grocery stores, movie theaters, concerts, 4th of July parades, everywhere. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers make billions. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

A train wreck in Ohio that spilled harmful chemicals, devastating a community. There had been a federal requirement for trains carrying flammable materials to have electronic breaking systems that prevent derailments such as this one. In the spirit of deregulation to increase profits and fatten the pockets of railway executives, the previous administration revoked that rule in 2017. Tragically the rule had not  been reinstated by the current administration. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

Finally, in Israel this week, 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset, demanding the preservation of democracy. Israel currently has a strong, independent judiciary. The new government is threatening to neuter the court system and carry out other illiberal measures to undermine Israel’s democratic character. They are doing this in the name of consolidating power, undermining democracy and threatening vulnerable members of society. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—Have you murdered and taken possession?

Ariella, Noam and I attended a pro-democracy rally in Jerusalem last month. It wasn’t nearly as large as this week’s, but it was spirited. They did not say, “You have murdered and possessed.” Rather, they chanted a corollary of the prophet’s words, the positive outcome that must result in the face of injustice. Repeatedly, the crowd chanted:

!העם דורש צדק משפטי

Ha’am doresh tzedek mishpati! 

The people demand justice under the law!

The chant echoes this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, a code of law that is the cornerstone of a just society; a code of law that is the blueprint for other law codes in the Torah; a code of law that is a bulwark against injustice. 

Some 2800 years ago, Eliyahu HaNavi saw injustice, and he named it. הרצחת וגם ירשת? Haratzaḥta v’gam yarashta—You have murdered and profited from the murder. As a result of his intervention, the laws of Moses took hold and revolutionized our people. There is a direct line from the prophets of old to the people in the streets of Jerusalem this week. העם דורש צדק משפטי! Ha’am doresh tzedek mishpati—The people demand justice under the law. May we have the strength, courage and resolve to create and maintain a just society.