By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
Sermon/D’var Torah for Parashat Mishpati
One of my all-time favorite movies is “School Ties.” Set in the early 1950’s at a prestigious Massachusetts boys’ prep school, “School Ties” tells the story of David Green, a high school senior who is brought in from the grungiest part of Scranton, PA, to play on the school’s football team and help it win its annual homecoming game. Oh yes, David Green also happens to be Jewish.
Beautifully filmed, scored and acted, the screenplay (by Dick Wolf) is as sharp and incisive as can be. In one of the most powerful lines of the movie, Green tells the headmaster of St. Matthew’s, “You used me to win a football game; I’m going to use you to get into Harvard.”
Truthfully, it’s not a beautiful sentiment. People using people isn’t the way society ought to work. Yet that is exactly the picture that “School Ties” paints. The movie is a microcosm of America in the 1950’s, a time that, today, some of us gaze back at with a kind of romantic longing. For many Americans, those were, indeed, “the good ol’ days,” days of optimism and success. World War Two was over, the Great Depression was gone, and with America now a global superpower, the American Dream was finally becoming real for the common man.
Yet despite the shiny veneer in which the period was portrayed—think “Father Knows Best,” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and, of course, “Leave It To Beaver”—just beneath the surface were deep fissures, class, gender and race divisions that would blow up a mere decade later in the social upheaval and furor of the 1960’s.
A society so deeply divided, a society where people get ahead by using one another, is not a healthy society. Reliance on one another is a much healthier model. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, but it makes all the difference in the world.
A society of users cultivates prejudice, disparity and inequality. This is the kind of society Abraham Lincoln called “a house divided against itself,” in which some become rich and powerful, while others are marginalized, ridiculed and scorned. Despite claiming to be a model of freedom and opportunity, this kind of society is bound for trouble; it truly cannot stand.
Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Judgments,” Exodus 22:27—23:5).
Coming on the footsteps of last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, which contains the Ten Commandments, Mishpatim at first glance seems to be the total opposite of its exalted predecessor. In Yitro, Moses climbs up Mt. Sinai to receive from the very hands of God Himself the Two Tablets of the Law, those monumental principles that would become the cornerstone of Western Civilization. Mishpatim, on the other hand, delves into the most mundane subjects of all—those crimes and misdemeanors, legal torts and offenses, the rights and wrongs that have little if anything to do with God, and everything to do with the way we behave among ourselves.
In Mishpatim, we are told to observe the Sabbath not because God made it holy, but rather because the people and animals we rely on to do the hard labor in our fields and homes deserve a day of rest. The lofty commandment “Honor thy father and thy mother” here is replaced by the much bleaker ruling that states, “One who strikes his father or mother… or curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” And the exalted vision of liberated slaves is replaced with regulations that merely limit the kind of abuse an owner can heave upon his slaves.
There is very little mention of God in Mishpatim, and only one reference to the holy days.
On the other hand, much weight is given in this portion to how we behave toward the stranger, the poor, the homeless, the widow and the orphan among us. We are told to treat the earth with respect and to feel compassion for the animals we would otherwise take for granted.
Mishpatim teaches us that it isn’t only God’s word that is holy. In our everyday transactions, our word becomes sacred. Honoring God means honoring one another. We dignify life not only by the clothes we wear or the sacrifices we offer, but also by the way we show dignity and respect to our humblest among us.
Mishpatim is all about how we create a great society versus an unhealthy one, the total opposite of the kind of society that “School Ties” portrays.
This year—in fact, this week, the week of the intensely anticipated New Hampshire primaries—we have an unparalleled opportunity not only to listen to the candidates, but also to observe ourselves. As we look at—and listen to—the various candidates that come begging, cajoling, promising, scaring and reassuring us in turn if only we vote for them, we have to also judge ourselves and our society.
As a nation, America is facing serious issues and problems. The issue of security is ever-present of course. Every decade brings its enemy, a culture so hostile to our own that it seems willing to stop at nothing short of mayhem, chaos and even total destruction. America’s position as leader of the free world has been made precarious not only by the advances of such a culture, by a group of people so ruthless and barbarian that it can rightly be called evil, but also by our own seeming indecisiveness at how best to counter this attack.
Poverty and marginalization in our cities have contributed to greater street violence than ever. Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions. The social media, once touted as tools of positive change, have become shouting matches where insults, bullying, bigotry and prejudice seem the rule rather than the exception.
Education, both in our elementary schools and in the institutes of higher learning, seems to have been taken over by a system that cares more for higher grades and measureable results—at any cost—than for true learning and scholarship.
These—and more—are huge problems, but they are not insurmountable. Yet the solution is not fear mongering or finger pointing. We can only achieve positive results when we work together; not when we use one another, but rather when we rely upon each other. Each component, every member of our society, from the highest to the lowest, is of equal value to the wellbeing of the entire community.
America’s greatness is not on some high mountaintop; it exists in how we relate to one another. If America is to keep its position as leader of the free world, it is not going to happen by spouting anger and frustration, but rather by the way we treat one another; by the way we treat the earth, water and air around us; by the way we treat the animals that we rely on for food, labor and companionship.
God’s holiness is not found only on this mountaintop or another. Nor is it limited to this house of worship or another. Rather, God can be found in our handshake. God’s holiness is in the word we give one another.
God’s oath is present not only in what we promise we will do in return for God’s favor, but rather, as Mishpatim teaches us, תִּֽהְיֶה֙ בֵּ֣ין שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם שְׁבֻעַ֣ת יְהֹוָ֗ה –God’s oath is between a man and his neighbor (Ex. 22:10 in the Hebrew, 22:11 in the English translation). It’s OK to lift your eyes up to the mountain for hope and vision, but what really counts, what really matters, is what we do down here, on this earth, among ourselves, among our neighbors and among our fellow living creatures.
May the meditations of our hearts, the words upon our lips, and the deeds of our hands all lead us forward to that vision that Moses and all Israel saw revealed at Mt. Sinai—a vision of freedom, respect and dignity for all for all humankind.