Tag Archives: Mishpatim

When the plumbers stop society’s moral leaks

7 Feb
Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents.

Lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan has had dire consequences for its 100,000 residents.

There’s an old joke about a plumber who was called to a doctor’s home to fix leaking faucet that had kept the surgeon awake late at night. After a two-minute job the plumber demanded $150. The surgeon exclaimed, ‘I don’t charge this amount even though I am a surgeon.” The plumber replied, “I agree, you are right. I too, didn’t either, when I was a surgeon. That’s why I switched to plumbing!”

We can joke about how sometimes we’re at the mercy of a plumber when something goes wrong in our house. However, think about how indispensable they are. Their technical know-how helps preserve the hygiene of entire communities. This week I developed a new appreciation of plumbers. In fact, a lot of them have become my heroes.

I’m sure many of us have been shocked and appalled by the environmental disaster in Flint, MI, Government officials at all levels, but particularly at the state level forced Flint to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to a local river that was full of toxic pollutants, including lead. Thousands of children are suffering from the effects of lead poisoning from which they will never recover. Flint is a depressed working-class town consisting mostly of minority populations. I can’t help but wonder if Flint were an affluent mostly white community. It’s doubtful they would have been forced to switch to an inferior water supply to begin with, but if it were, there’s no way it would be systematically ignored and even mocked by public officials. I hope that there a criminal investigation and that high-ranking government officials go to jail over the poisoning of Flint.

To a large extent, the damage has been done. However, in the midst of this man-made disaster there is also a glimmer of hope. According to a report last week, 300 plumbers from unions across the country descended on Flint to install new faucets and water filters for free.

Many Flint residents needed new faucets because their existing faucets were so old they could not accommodate water filters provided by the state.

The effort was coordinated by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, known as the United Association. The fixtures were donated by the Plumbing Manufacturers International.

For some in Flint, however, even new faucets with modern water filters won’t be enough to fully abate the lead contamination. New tests released recently revealed that, in some Flint homes, the levels of lead “exceed the ability of filtration systems handed.” The filters can safely remove up to 150 parts per billion of lead. Some Flint homes were found to have lead levels of more than 4,000 parts per billion. Residents of Flint, however, are still encouraged to use the filters. For most homes, they will work.

The plumbers saw the basic humanity in the people of Flint when officials in power refused to do so. Their example is precisely the approach that our Torah portion calls upon us to take. The text in Parashat Mishpatim reads:  כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן “You shall not harm any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat one, and if he cries out to me, then I will surely hear his cry. And My anger will blaze forth, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children will be orphans” (22: 21-23). God is certainly talking tough here with the measure for measure message. Looking at the big picture, God is described as the defender of widows and orphans, which is a euphemism for the most downtrodden members of society.

My late friend Matthew Eisenfeld studied this passage in depth for a research paper “God As Defender of Widows and Orphans” that he presented to Prof. Moshe Greenberg (1928-2010) shortly before Matt’s untimely

death twenty years ago. (This essay is excerpted from a collection that I recently published: Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.) As Matt notes various commentators point out that note that the verse (22: 21) employs three grammatical peculiarities that serve as strengthening devices, including the word kol, the precedence of subject to verb and the final nun of the word te`anun. The first word of the verse, kol, seems superfluous, as the law could have been taught without its usage. It’s there for emphasis. The subject-verb order also is a point of emphasis. The nun at the end of te’anun is a poetic flourish. From a literary point of view the text instructs us: make no mistake—it’s God’s way to protect the weak and vulnerable.

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, where societal justice is concerned, God is at stake. In Heschel’s words, “People act as they please, doing what they will, abusing the weak, not realizing that they are fighting God, affronting the divine, or that oppression of man is a humiliation of God.” On the other hand, a society that functions well reinforces faith in God. Furthermore, God takes special interest in the weak not only because they are the measure of whether or not the justice system really works but because their welfare reflects God’s own power and effectiveness.

Our Torah portion anticipates the statements of the Rabbis in the Midrash and Talmud: Just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too should be gracious and compassionate (Difre Deut. Ekev); As God clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. As God visits the sick, you should visit the sick. As God comforts the bereaved, you should comfort the bereaved. (Sotah 14a).

If our society today thinks it’s ok to pump toxic water into poor cities, then we have a serious leak of the most basic values of decency. Thank God for the plumbers who remind us not only how to fix pipes but also how to stop up the leak of values. The plumbers in Flint got the message that God expects us to defend widows and orphans and other vulnerable members of society. Wouldn’t it be wise of us to follow their lead?

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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.

Two opposing giants who are both right

24 Jan
Departed Israeli leaders, Ariel Sharon (l) and Shulamit Aloni (r)

Departed Israeli leaders, Ariel Sharon (l) and Shulamit Aloni (r)

It’s been said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. In the aftermath of World War II and the Shoah, the Jewish people were in the depths of our worst crisis. We had lost six million people and faced an uphill battle in establishing a Jewish state in our historic homeland. Now 65 years old, the State of Israel was created out of the ashes of the Shoah as the nation state of the Jews. It presented an opportunity for a new beginning to create a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people that exemplified the best of Jewish ethics through a vibrant liberal democracy.

In recent days, Israel lost two giants of the founding generation. They were both born in Israel in the late 1920s and both fought in the 1948 War of Independence and both lived their lives striving to create an ideal Jewish state. They both had a significant impact on the shaping of Israel, and both were highly divisive and controversial figures. These two individuals were fierce opponents of each other, yet each made important contributions to the character of Israel. On January 11, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon passed away. He had a reputation as a hardline security hawk who spent his career as a general and politician seeking secure and recognizable borders for Israel. On January 24, Shulamit Aloni died. She was the firebrand lawmaker from Israel’s left wing who spent much of her career protesting the settlements in the Occupied Territories that Ariel Sharon spent much of his career building. She was a civil rights advocate who concerned herself with Israel’s moral security within her borders.

Israel needed both Ariel Sharon and Shulamit Aloni and the vibrant democracy that abided both of them and kept much of their most extreme views in check. The ongoing project of building a Jewish national homeland in the modern era owes a great debt both to Ariel Sharon and to Shulamit Aloni, and it can trace its roots all the way to this week’s Torah portion.

Parashat Mishpatim, coupled with last week’s reading, Yitro, says in effect that the Israelites have a once in a lifetime opportunity to create their own ideal society. In today’s reading, we read a series of laws that form the rubric of a society rooted in justice for all. I’d like to give a brief overview of the framework of Parashat Mishpatim, particularly in its context as an ancient Near Eastern law code.

The Sages teach that when God gave the Torah to Israel, God spoke in a language that they knew and understood (Tanhuma Buber, Yitro 16). Thanks to the field of archeology, it has been found that today’s Torah portion, Parashat Mishpatim, with its code of civil law, bears strong parallels with many law codes of the ancient Near East. When compared to these law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi (1728-1686 BCE), it is clear that our Torah portion was written in a language that reflects their style and, to some extent, their content. For example, the ancient law codes began with a prologue, a statement of protection from the ruler to whom the subject must pledge their fealty. The opening of the Ten Commandments, which we read last week, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” serves this purpose.

Despite similarities between our parasha and ancient Mesopotamian law codes, there are also significant differences. Shalom Paul, Professor of Bible at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, notes the following:
1) In the ancient Near East the law codes were considered cosmic eternal truths, which did not originate from a divine or human source. The gods were the guardians of the law and the king its trustee. In contrast, law in the Torah is an expression of the divine will. Therefore, all crimes, including murder, are considered sins against God.
2) The whole of one’s life is directly related to the will of God, to whom each and everyone is directly and personally responsible, both free people and slaves.
3) In ancient societies, law codes were secret and guarded closely by priests and royalty. In the Torah, the law is proclaimed publicly to the entire society and constitutes, moreover, a body of teaching to this community. Hence, many laws are followed by explanatory statements to illustrate the motive of the law, be it ethical, religious or historical.
4) The sacredness of a human life is a primary concern of the Torah, such that whoever destroys a human life—whether man or beast—must give a reckoning for it.
5) Brutal punishments, such as mutilation of limbs are all but absent in the Torah, but common in other ancient law codes.
6) The law of “eye for an eye,” known as talion, restrict retaliation to the actual offender and limit it to the exact measure of the injury.

Today’s Torah portion reflects the law codes of the Ancient Near East, but it also sets a new standard for civil societies to follow that was revolutionary for its time. Similarly, 1948 was a revolutionary time for the Jewish people because for the first time in 2,000 years we became actors in carrying out our own destiny. We were no longer mere objects of others. Realizing this dream required the coming together of two different Biblical philosophies that were embodied by Ariel Sharon and Shulamit Aloni. Sharon embodied the principal of am levadad yishkon, a people that will dwell alone. As a general and defense minister, Sharon fought on Israel’s frontiers in the south and north to secure its borders. As Prime Minister he built a fence that stopped terrorist infiltrations from the West Bank and created a physical separation between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors. The last major act of his active political life was the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Whether one agreed with him or not, his philosophy was a secure Israel that would dwell apart. He was criticized from all sides for the Gaza withdrawal, and it remains a controversial decision. Yet, the withdrawal was true to his philosophy of the Jewish people dwelling apart.

In contrast, Shulamit Aloni’s Biblical frame of reference was Or lagoyim, a light unto the nations (e.g., Isaiah 42:6). She envisioned an Israel as an enlightened democracy that would be an inspiration to the world. In this mindset, she was an outspoken critic of settlement policy; she championed civil rights for Palestinians; she deplored the Orthodox hegemony over civil matters, such as marriage. Often she went too far, in my mind. For example, she was opposed to sending Israeli high school students to Europe to visit Nazi concentration camps because she believed these trips fomented xenophobia among Israeli youth. Nevertheless, one has to wonder what Israel might have been like without her.

In my opinion, Israel and the Jewish people need both philosophies of Sharon and Aloni. Both am levadad yishkon, “a people that dwells apart,” and or lagoyim, “a light unto the nations” are worthy aspirations that need to exist in healthy tension with each other. Sharon and Aloni represented different points on the spectrum, and, I believe, Israel needed them both. We need a physically safe Israel in secure and recognizable borders, and we need Israel to be a society of justice, compassion and equality for its citizens. May the spirit of today’s Torah portion inspire our people to embrace both of these goals as we remember two departed giants of Israeli public life. May their memory be for a blessing.

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23 Jan
The scales of justice

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.