The language of the Torah changed drastically in this week’s parasha, Mishpatim. Gone are the grand epic descriptions of the Divine encounter. Gone are the summonses and treasured peoples and lightning and thunder.
Mishpatim is about rules. And more rules. And mostly about what not to do. The rules are one great big “what if” litany. And, since my dad always called me the “what if?” kid, this would be one of my more favorite sections of the Torah.
But one “what if” catches my eye and puts a catch in my throat every year. “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets”….Ok, that goes along with the pattern of admonitions so far, but the text goes further….”it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. What else shall he sleep in?” (Ex 22:25-26)
It’s such human language, such a human response. It’s such a change from the Divine language of last week’s portion.
Moses is laying down scenario after scenario, all designed to give these newly liberated, former slaves some guidelines on what a compassionate society looks like. You can almost hear them asking, “But what if…..” and “What if……” and “What do I do if……?” If a man gives you money for safekeeping……if a man leaves a pit open and someone’s animal falls in….. If a thief is caught while tunneling….”
First of all, it’s fascinating in this social modeling that this brave new world the Israelites have walked into is not one in which people won’t steal, or people won’t fall into debt. Reality is the rule of the day. People are going to get into trouble financially, and the community needs to know how to deal with it: compassionately, because that’s the way God is described in the next part of the verse: “Therefore, if he (the one whose cloak is taken) cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.”
Debt will happen. Stripping the debtor of everything thing s/he has is a line we are not to cross. Humiliation is not the goal, nor is it ever to be a byproduct of getting paid back. One wonders how the last few years could have been handled differently in the mortgage industry, if only this value were adhered to? How many homeowners never got their “cloak” back, i.e. their dignity? We’re told not to take “his only clothing, the sole covering of his skin” because, “what else would he sleep in.” How much more so is the home itself, the only clothing, the only thing covering his head?
I am not here to do an economic assessment of the mortgage industry, but I do feel that it began when loaners forgot they were dealing with real people because the people in the scenario were no longer just local bankers and neighbors. The homes were real “clothing” protecting the people inside, but those who started to see the mortgages merely as products to package, buy, and sell, sometimes by encouraging debt to those who weren’t able to pay it back…well, they crossed a line that was laid out fairly clearly in Mishpatim. They stopped seeing the person and only saw the “investment.” They stopped seeing the neighbor and only saw the payback.
Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson, R. Samuel ben Meir, 12th c France) says that if you get to the point where you need to take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, it’s because of a court order, but no matter how much debt is involved, you must never publically humiliate or strip the dignity from that neighbor. That’s how you act as a creditor. That’s how you act as a businessman. That’s how you act as a human being.
Mishpatim starts setting up the values that form the structure on which a humane, compassionate, but functioning society is built. We would do well to revisit those values.