I love this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, which means “laws”. Here we are, fresh off the astounding, earth-trembling, soul –changing , community-as-one ultimate experience of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. It was a societal buzz that could not be duplicated. And what comes next?
Mishpatim, the bullet-points of justice.
No sooner had the echoes of the thunderous mountain top receded from the people’s ears, than they began receiving the down-from-the-mountain, real-life laws of “What if…?” It’s all very well to hear, “Honor your father and mother” and “Do not steal”, but how those concepts apply on a daily basis, to my mind, is invaluable. Judaism has always been a practical religion. It tells us what to do on Tuesday, not just a holiday. And behind all the laws of Mishpatim is a great and powerful idea: that individuals in this new society are to be honored, individually. Their dignity is to remain at all costs.
Mishpatim doesn’t assume there won’t be disagreements within this new community; to the contrary, Mishpatim lays out what to do when there are. Which brings us to the quote above. Imagine this: you’re walking along the road, and the neighbor with whom you’ve been feuding is struggling with an animal that has fallen under its load. It’s more than a one-person job, and to leave the animal where it is would bring significant financial difficulty to your neighbor.
Imagine what it takes to walk over to this person and simply help. The animal has nothing to do with your dispute. It’s in discomfort, and so is the human being next to it. You must simply help. You don’t need to go over your history with your enemy, you don’t need to re-visit the causes of your enmity. But for the moment, you both need to work together, and not even for both of your benefits, but for only one.
This will take communication along the lines of, “Here, get a rope…you grab it here, wait, let me get on this side…yes that’s it…hold on…ok, we’ve got it” Maybe you haven’t shared a civil word in years. Maybe you haven’t even spoken at all. But for only one moment, only one specific, time-limited task, Judaism says you two must not only speak to each other, but truly communicate to get the job done.
This is brilliant. Rashbam (12th c France, Rashi’s grandson) even says the word “raise” in the text has a nuanced element to it, referring to assistance and strengthening. You are doing more than merely getting an animal to its feet and re-positioning its burden. You are strengthening the relationship between you and its owner, your “enemy”.
How relevant. How profound. How much progress toward peace between warring parties if they could lay aside the burden of their tension, and work together to raise up something that strengthens them? This will require seeing your enemies’ discomfort, seeing that they need help, and stepping forward to help, even if it doesn’t affect you directly. It means you see what your enemy needs, apart from what you’ve been fighting about. Your enemy becomes a real person, and his/her suffering becomes partly your responsibility to alleviate. You have to see the person, not the enemy.
The ecstasy of Sinai couldn’t last. The daily challenges of life awaited the Israelites the next morning. We would do well to see these bullet points of justice in our own time, with our own neighbors, our own enemies, to build, and re-build the society that Mishpatim tells us is holy.