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Parashat Hashavua for Mishpatim 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Mishpatim, Shabbat Shekalim

Rabbi Gary J Robuck, with bar mitzvah student Oscar Rosauer (aged 13)
Consulting Rabbi, Progressive Congregation of the ACT Jewish Community

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim and comes from chapter 21 of the Book of Exodus.  Mishpatim is read this year on Shabbat Shekalim; that is, one of four special Shabbatot between and around Purim and Passover. Shekalim refers to how, at the time of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, citizens of Israel would bring a half-shekel tribute in support of the temple’s maintenance and its priests. While we no longer bring a half-shekel, we recall and honour this practice by reading a special selection from both the Torah and haftarah, the Prophetic reading.   

Mishpatim is filled with interesting material, but is best understood in connection with the portion that comes immediately before it. That portion, Yitro, is filled with drama.  Moses goes up to Mount Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments while, at the same time, the people are worshipping a golden calf and turning away from God. In Yitro, the mountain is consumed in smoke and both the mountain and the people are described as trembling and in awe.

Nothing nearly so dramatic happens here. Instead, this week’s portion consists of four chapters of civil law concerning our behaviour towards one another. We learn about the laws of slavery, protection for the stranger, damages to the property of others and laws regarding murder and manslaughter. It is in this portion we also hear the famous line regarding “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth”, in which we are taught to settle grievances civilly in court or through monetary compensation.

The land, like the people, is also to be protected. In our portion, we are introduced to the concept of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, at which time the land of Israel is to be left for the poor and for animals. In such years, the soil is to be left un-harvested and unplanted. This is like the Jew who traditionally is required to rest on the Sabbath day. Both are a test of the people’s faith and trust in God. 

All damages and negligence are covered in this portion, but not only for people or even for the land, but also for the animals with whom we share it.

In some ways, our portion is well ahead of its time. Leaving a portion of one’s field for the needy, treating animals kindly, not taking bribes, extorting others or demanding excessive interest on loans, could all find their way into a modern law book. In short, whether the portion is dealing with people, land or animals, the Torah is emphatic: all of creation is deserving of fair treatment under the same law. To this, the people answer: "Na’aseh v’nishmah – We will do and obey.”

Throughout the portion, as elsewhere in the Torah, the biblical author is anxious that we understand the importance of fairness and equality before the Law, regardless of whether a person is rich or poor, citizen or stranger. This is obvious here and elsewhere in the Torah, when repeatedly we are told how to behave towards the stranger who might otherwise be met by distrust and xenophobia and made to be fearful for their life and possessions. Workers who are vulnerable must be protected from their master, and the poor must be guests at our table.

The Jewish concept of tzedakah, which means “justice”, reminds us that we are never free from pursuing equality and fairness. Instead, tzedakah expects that we are “just” and charitable, not only when it is easy or convenient, not just when we have lots of money, but always and out of a sense of obligation to those less fortunate than we.

In our time, inequality remains an increasingly complex problem. There are many examples.  Racism means that some are denied opportunities that are accessible to other people. Sexism means men and women are treated differently, when they ought to be given the same rights and privileges. Class-based inequality means that those born into one economic circumstance may never have the same opportunity as those who are born wealthier. They may receive a worse education, poor health care, and made to walk a harder path through life. 

In Australia, we have laws that allow people to choose who they marry and are allowed to love. This equality was only earned through struggle and over many years.  But, in many other places, this isn’t considered a right. People still have to fight for the ability to choose who they love. 

In Australia, refugees, though given sanctuary, may not be treated equally by some. Standing on equal footing is something that takes a lot of time. When Jews came to Australia after or just before the Second World War, they were treated like so many other “new Australians”: with contempt, called names and even told to go back to where they came from. In time, however, we became equal in the eyes of other Australians and went on to contribute to our country in many great ways.     

Our country’s first peoples, though having lived on the land for as much as 60,000 years, are still fighting for equality in health care, education, and how they are treated in the courts. And today, Aboriginal advocates are still hoping to have these rights placed into our Constitution.   

As we turn to this morning’s reading, let us keep the following in mind: No society, not here in Australia, in Israel or anywhere else, can possibly exist when following the law only in broad strokes. Every society needs specific laws that remind us how to treat one another and how to live cooperatively so that no one person is given advantage over the other.

The Torah makes it plain: All people are created in God’s image and deserving of justice. Our job, whether here in Australia or in Israel, the only Jewish State, is to build a society in which everyone gets a “fair go” and is given the rights to live their lives as they want to.  On my bar mitzvah I pledge myself to this effort. 

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