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Torah Commentary
Mishpatim (February 25, 2017)

Ben Kirschenbaum

In this week’s parashah, the newly formed Jewish people suddenly are confronted with many new laws and rules, regulations, restrictions and requirements by which to live their lives and conduct their day-to-day affairs. As with many aspects of life, much of what they are told is logical, sensible and inherently vital toward the preservation of a functioning civil society, where individual rights, liberties, values and aspirations are protected. But, these laws and rules also help them achieve the delicate balance between survival in the world in which they live and the personal refinement that helps them strive toward a higher, more G-d-like self. Many of the other laws that were passed may seem more arbitrary and less logical, but they do appear in the same venerated and holy text. Should those which do not appear to be as relevant to our lives be met with any less enthusiasm and solemnity?
One thing I have found to be particularly intriguing and noteworthy is the forward-thinking nature of the Bible, as is evident in this parashah. These recipients of the holy Torah and the rules contained therein are former slaves who have been wandering through a desert with very little to ever call their own. They never have owned or probably even seen the fields, cattle, property or other possessions the Bible describes. Now they are being told that they will be owners of such property, and they are getting glimpses into their future selves, which are strikingly different from their current ones.

As an educator, I always try to help students to look beyond their current predicaments, situations and circumstances toward their futures and who they may become. I always try to remind them that G-d has a plan in mind for each of them, which he feels confident can be achieved if a good-faith and sincere effort is made. They will achieve things and be confronted with situations and choices that they cannot possibly fathom, but deep within them is the divine spark. The part of them that is limitless, boundless and timeless, which enables them to strive toward their goals undauntedly, and reminds them that on their journey they are not only with their fellow travelers — whom they should try their utmost to befriend — but they are with a divine presence which formed and fashioned them and reminds them of who they truly are. They are not the façade of the persona they may have taken on but their authentic selves which are capable of more than they can ever fathom, as reminded to them by the Almighty.
There are so many salient and inspirational mishpatim (sentences) to draw upon, but if I had to pick one that stands out to me, it would be, “To treat the stranger with kindness, for you know his heart, for you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) The requirement to treat all others with respect can, at first glance, be viewed as a measure of kindness from one person to another. However, upon closer examination, it seems to me that there is a deeper and more fundamental purpose toward this rule.

A person you encounter is not some random happenstance that magically appears in your life. Rather, he or she is an absolute necessity for your life’s journey. That person enters your life at the specific time he or she does, and he or she exits it the same way. The contributions, challenges and interactions that you share with that person are integral toward the person’s refinement, just as yours are integral toward his or hers. There is no way for us in our limited capacity and contracted awareness, in the keyhole view of life that each of us unfailingly has, to fathom the importance and immeasurable value of another person...no matter who that person is or from where he or she comes.

This message will serve us well as a society and as individuals. The stranger can turn into the helper, the helper into the friend, and the friend into the reflection of the Almighty himself.

Ben Kirschenbaum is a yeshiva graduate who
has been teaching Hebrew at Temple Emanu-El for the past 17 years.

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