I keep thinking, that with each week that goes by, each parasha, (weekly portion) won’t scream “RELEVANCE.” But no, the blessing and the curse of Torah. It is always relevant.
This week our portion is Mishpatim. Laws, or rather, rules, and it happens right after the exhilarating, earth-shattering theological experience of Sinai. What happens after that kind of experience? How do you get back to your life? Where to begin? The Ten Commandments began the long journey not just through a physical or spiritual wilderness, but through a social one as well. God said, “Hey, you’re a people now!” and the people said, “Huh? How do we do that?”
Well, you build a society, one concept, one law, one rule at a time. Like this one:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I shall hear their cry as soon as they cry out to Me.” (Ex 22:20-22)
The rest of the parshat Mishpatim is a seemingly random collection of do’s and don’ts…how to build a society. We read about ox goring, witnesses, treatment of slaves, thievery, monetary recompense for injuries and damages, and lending money.
There’s more in chapter 23:
Don’t carry false rumors or join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness.
Don’t side with the mighty (the many) to do wrong – you shall not give perverse testimony to pervert it in favor of the mighty
Don’t subvert the rights of the needy in their dispute.
And then there it is again:
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 23:9)
We have a brand new society, rising up from a bunch of traumatized slaves with a reluctant leader who grows in confidence each day, and among the oxen and first fruits, the needs of the most vulnerable in society are not only highlighted, but given God’s greatest care and concern; God will hear about it if you mistreat these folks.
It just doesn’t get clearer than that. At the core of a righteous and just society, a holy society, it is our responsibility to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the ones who are vulnerable and need protection..not from God, but from us. God only comes into the picture when we screw up, and mistreat them, causing them to cry out. So when we witness their oppression, it must be our own voices that cry out on their behalf, and we must keep at it if we are to ever think of ourselves as a just society again.