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Torah Commentary
Mishpatim (February 18, 2012)

Missy Bell,
of Youth Learning and Engagement

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Mishpatim, begins immediately after the Israelites are given the Ten Commandments. Mishpatim, meaning “laws,” is a very fitting name for the portion, considering that these chapters are long lists of laws that the Israelites are told to follow. Immediately prior to Mishpatim, the Israelites receive the Ten Commandments, and some commentators say that this detailed list in Mishpatim is actually an elaboration on the laws of the Ten Commandments. Some of the laws include how to treat slaves, how to treat animals and how to treat the land. There are also many laws about compensation for damage or injury caused to another person or their property, including the well-known “an eye for an eye.” (Exodus 21:23) The Israelites also are given the three festival holidays at this time: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. Finally, at the end of the portion, Moses goes back up to Mount Sinai where he will remain for 40 days and nights.

Also in Mishpatim, the Israelites are told, “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) We are told multiple times in the Torah not to oppress the stranger but to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the first two appearances of this commandment are in Mishpatim, mere months after the Israelites left Egypt. The reoccurrences of this motif tell me that it is one of the more important themes of the Torah. Egypt was not the Israelites’ home, and we spent many years in the desert wandering, homeless, before we came to the Land of Israel. Because of this, loving the stranger is an important Jewish value that we are required to fulfill.

Each year, the teen community at Temple Emanu-El strives to help the stranger and the wanderer as the Torah commands. This past Friday night, 30 Emanu-El teens participated in a Midnight Run. They went to several different sites in Manhattan where homeless members of the community congregate and handed out clothing and meals directly to those in need. Last month, eighth graders from Temple Emanu-El, Temple Israel, Shaaray Tefila and Stephen Wise Free Synagogue went to New Orleans to participate in the rebuilding of that community, which is still necessary after Hurricane Katrina.

This week, nine Emanu-El high school students are traveling to Birmingham, Ala., to participate in rebuilding projects there following the destructive tornadoes that occurred last April and again at the end of January. Many families in the south lost their homes and may be feeling like strangers in their own town, without living in their own houses. By working to rebuild homes destroyed by the tornadoes and severe storms, our high school students truly will know what it means to feel compassion towards the stranger and reflect on the Jewish community’s own history as strangers and wanderers.

Mishpatim helps us make that connection between our own history and the suffering that other people in the world endure. Not only are we encouraged to help others, but we also are reminded that we were once in that position so that we always may remember to feel compassion, rather than pity. These are just some of the values that we strive to teach the teens at Emanu-El as we send them off in the world to make it a better place and participate in tikkun olam.


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