Tag Archives: Judaism

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. 

Giving Thanks: Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz on her new role as JTS Chancellor

19 Nov

Here’s my newest edition of My Teacher Podcast in which I interview Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, the eighth Chancellor of JTS and the first woman in this role. In this Thanksgiving 2020 interview, she reflects on her career, scholarship, personal challenges and steering JTS through the COVID-19 era.

#TieBlog #Vayishlah #JacobWrestles

27 Nov


Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Parashat Vayishlah presents the climax in Jacob’s journey from a trickster youth who gets his way through deception to a mature adult who faces life’s challenges with integrity. He is about to confront his estranged brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. He fears for his life as he believes Esau is still angry over being cheated out of his birthright. The night before meeting Esau, Jacob encounters a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok and they wrestle all night. Towards dawn, Jacob prevails but the sparring partner strikes him in his hip and causes permanent injury. Jacob emerges triumphant but wounded. He is renamed Yisrael- the one who wrestles with God and man and prevails. Later (33:18), Jacob is described as “Shalem,” whole or at peace. Even though Jacob is hurt in a wrestling bout, he is a much more whole person for finding within him the integrity to repair his relationship with his brother.

#TieBlog #Vayetze #Jacob’s Ladder

20 Nov

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob’s Ladder

In Parashat Vayetze, Jacob dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. They next morning, Jacob awakes and says, “God was in this place, and I did not even know it.” Herein lies a subtle but clear message that while other faith traditions view heavenly bliss as the ultimate religious achievement, for Judaism, the ultimate religious expression is bringing a bit of heaven onto earth.

#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

29 Oct

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock. Or perhaps it’s Sarah upon learning of the near sacrifice of her son Isaac (Sarah dies at the beginning of the next portion). It could be all of these things, making this one loud, action-packed Torah portion.

#TieBlog #Noah

15 Oct

Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark

As we turn to Parashat Noah, we are faced with the perplexing challenge posed by the first verse, “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.” Why does the text say “in his generation”? The rabbis of old had a debate. Some say that if Noah could stand out in his age when surrounded by depravity, all the more so in other ages when he would have other decent people around him. Other rabbis aren’t so sure. He was certainly better than the people around him, but he would have paled in comparison to an Abraham or Moses who intervened before God on behalf of people condemned to die. Noah never says anything. He builds his ark and goes on his way. His action (or inaction) stands in contrast to Abraham challenges God directly when Sodom and Gomorrah are doomed to destruction. “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25), Abraham pleas, hoping the depraved cities would be spared for the sake of even ten righteous people. Abraham intervened with God on behalf of the righteous. Moses takes it a step further and intervenes to save the guilty, the people of Israel who commit the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). The trajectory of the Torah suggests that Noah was righteous for his time, but would have paled in comparison to the giants of later generations.

#TieBlog #Shemini

17 Apr

Nadav and Avihu play with "strange fire" in Parashat Shemini."

Nadav and Avihu play with “strange fire” in Parashat Shemini.”

We learn when we’re young never play with matches. In Parashat Shemini, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, bring eish zarah, strange fire to the altar. They are tragically stricken down as punishment. The Torah provides scant rationale, Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled to find an adequate explanation for this incident. Whatever explanation one chooses, there is no ambiguity of Aaron’s shock: Vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent. Yet Aaron goes on living, establishing Jewish religious observance for generations to come. In our world, we are bombarded by inexplicable tragedies that often leave us speechless. Our best defiance is to go on living and affirm life.

#TieBlog #Tzav

27 Mar

The eternal flame

The eternal flame

Parashat Tzav continues discussion of the order of sacrifices and contains the instruction that the kohanim (priests) maintain a perpetual flame on the altar.

This is also Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” preceding Passover. We focus on preparing our homes to be rid of all hametz (leavened products)by the start of the holiday. On Thursday night we do bedikat hametz, an inspection of the home to make sure it is hametz-free. On Friday morning we burn the leftover hametz from the search. This week’s tie also evokes the upcoming burning of hametz. Please exercise appropriate caution, and enjoy your Passover preparations.

The finer details of community building

13 Mar

For math aficionados, this weekend is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. March 14, known as Pi Day. To remind those of us who haven’t been in high school geometry for a while, Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This is approximately 3.14, but this is only an approximation. We actually don’t know the exact ratio, though mathematicians have expanded the decimal to hundreds more digits. As we were beginning the Shacharit service today on 3/14/15 at 9:26 and 53 seconds, we experienced Pi Day to the fullest extent possible for the next 100 years. I didn’t want that moment to go unnoticed.

Our Torah today reading focuses much attention on precision in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This week we conclude the public reading of the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot (Exodus) and read the two parashiyot known as Vayakhel and Pekudei. These readings follow last week’s reading of the Golden Calf episode, while today’s reading deals nearly exclusively with the construction of the tabernacle and furnishings that our people carried with them in the desert period. It is clear that after the powerful experience of the Divine Presence at Sinai, followed later by construction of the Golden Calf, the people need some tangible, physical reminder of God’s presence. The Torah describes in extensive detail the measurements of the Mishkan, because a house of God must be made just right. Years later, the Tabernacle would be replaced by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and following its destruction, the synagogue became our spiritual home. In every community, we attempt to make our place of worship a fitting beautiful place that we feel suits God’s presence. At the same time, we are reminded in this same portion that with all of the exactitude of construction, the key purpose of the Mishkan or the modern synagogue is as a place of sacred convocation. God is not present unless people are present creating community with one another.

The Torah reading opens Vayak’hel Moshe et KOL adat b’nai Yisrael. Moses gathered KOL, the entire community of Israel. In classical rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, every word is full of meaning. So many commentators naturally ask why the text adds the modifier kol, for all. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that this is to restore the sense of unity and shared purpose that had existed at Mount Sinai. Other commentators explain that the simple word kol was to be a constant reminder that our definition of community must include all our members. To be loyal to our calling, the community must include the younger and older; weak and the strong; men and women and children. Every individual, whatever his/her station in life, has a special place in the life of the community. Every person matters (Thanks to Rabbi Melvin Sirner for this spark).

Every day we are bombarded by difficult news stories that might be boiled down to individuals or segments of society forgetting the basic premise that every person matters. I don’t think any of us has to think too hard to think of examples disrespect, discrimination and hatred that exist in our country and around the world. Once in a while, it’s nice to hear good news about people standing up and doing the right thing for others, particularly for weaker, more vulnerable members of society.

This week, there was one such story in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Lincoln Middle School was hosting a basketball game. One of the school’s cheerleaders, Desiree Andrews, a student with Downs Syndrome, was being heckled by fans in the bleachers. This is horrible and disheartening. And then something remarkable happened. Three eighth graders on the team, Miles Rodriguez, Scooter Terrien and Chase Vazquez, stopped the game, went up into the stands, and told the hecklers to knock it off. In response, there has been an outpouring of support for these students, for their parents, for the school and for Desiree. The school renamed the gymnasium “D’s House,” and the Kenosha City Council is honoring the three players for standing up for Desiree.

The story has spread widely on the Internet and social media. One quotation in a news article stood out for me. One of the three boys, Scooter Terrien, said: “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong because we’re all the same. We’re all created the same. God made us the same way.”
This should not seem remarkable to us—it should be what we consider normal. And yet, for three 14-year-old boys to stop a basketball game to stand up to a heartless, cowardly bully, it gives hope to all of who wish to see our communal homes cultivate and nurture our most precious values. Clearly Lincoln Middle School gets an ‘A’ for creating an atmosphere in which these three basketball players developed values of caring and concern. Their families and broader community that helped raise these boys also deserve credit for raising boys who understand that every person matters.

These three boys at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha are an inspiration to us here who care about creating a vibrant and caring synagogue community where every person matters.

On this Pi Day, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the measurements of the Tabernacle and its contents. However, our Torah portion comes to remind us in the very first verse the ultimate purpose of a community, particularly a sacred community. Just as Moses recognized the value of each and every individual, we must do the same. May God grant us the strength to remember that every person matters, that our words and our actions will reflect this core value and that younger generations will look to us as models to emulate.


#TieBlog #Mishpatim

13 Feb

The scales of justice


I’m getting good use out of my justice ties this week (I actually have three) as we read Parashat Mishpatim. This section is known as the Covenant Code. While the Ten Commandments read in the previous week’s portion lay out general principles for society, this portion provides a foundation of civil law for society.