Parshat Mishpatim blesses us with the power of discernment, as we attempt to live our lives in balance with Divine justice and love. We are blessed with the holy task of being present, vigilant, and kind, that our actions might be in agreement with the vision of wholeness and connection that we received at Sinai.
We embark upon this holy task in the context of the value system of our particular culture, time, and place. The Torah gives us an example of a people struggling to express a loving and exacting justice in their world. In order to follow the example of our ancestors, we must discern the principles of justice and apply them in our own lives and in our own world. For instance:
“If you take a neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you must restore it to him before nightfall because that’s his only covering and where is he going to sleep? When he cries to me I will hear, for I am gracious.” (Exodus 22:25-26)
In other words, kindness supersedes the rules of property. Empathy for the neighbor who might shiver through a cold night is what is really important. We are given the assignment of being God’s ears as we listen for and respond to the cries of the poor and oppressed. Whenever we resort to the logic of “what’s mine is mine,” God reminds us that “All the Earth is Mine.”
Mishpat is usually translated as “rule,” “judgment,” or “ordinance.” When I encounter this word, I understand it as “impeccability.” When the Toltec Shaman, Don Juan, cautions Carlos Castaneda that he must be impeccable, he is trying to impress upon his student the utmost importance of staying alert and aware of the consequences of one’s actions. Every word and deed ripples out to affect the whole — so the welfare of the whole must be considered.
This consideration extends through time as well as space. How will my actions benefit or harm generations to come?
We are blessed with the responsibility of being scrupulous with what we consume, what we waste, and how our lives impact the planet. This responsibility helps us to stay awake and aware of our potential to destroy as well as create. Mishpatim strips us of any excuses for cruelty or apathy. Even our enemy may count on our help when she is in need.
When a mitzvah is repeated in the Torah, it’s a sign to pay close attention. When it is repeated 36 times, we know that not only is that mitzvah important; but it stands as a central spiritual challenge on our journey. We are commanded not to wrong or oppress the stranger. This mitzvah appears twice in Mishpatim. The first time we see this commandment we are charged to keep it because we ourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt.
This reasoning does not quite hold. Those who suffer oppression often themselves go on to oppress others. Whatever hurt I suffer becomes the source of my destructive powers. The wound that is layered over with scar tissue makes me insensitive to the suffering of others. To acknowledge the pain of others, I would once again have to feel my own.
Parents who abuse their children have most likely been abused themselves. The chain of suffering continues. Each subsequent generation seeks revenge for the misfortune it has endured. We inherit the myth of “good guys” and “bad guys” so that we know exactly who to blame. The stranger in our midst is always a likely target. We are caught in this cycle of oppression in which our suffering festers and grows inside us, becoming a weapon of continued blame and retribution. Yet the spiritual challenge remains: How can I transform my suffering into compassion for the stranger?
We receive this commandment again in the very next chapter; this time it comes with further clarification. “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The clarifying phrase — “ve-atem yedatem et nefesh ha-ger…” (for you know the soul of the stranger) — gives me the key to the door of compassion. The verb “yada” (to know), signifies intimacy. When I encounter the stranger, I am commanded to know her soul, to step inside her skin, to see that his pain, his joy, is not different than my own. This moment of knowing breaks the chain of oppression.
When I encounter the suffering of the stranger it can be an opportunity for me to approach and begin to heal the place inside myself that remembers suffering. From that place of newfound wholeness I can then work for justice and become a healer of the world’s pain. The secret ingredient is profound connection with the other. Gazing into the soul of the stranger, compassion is born. This compassion embraces your own suffering as well as the stranger’s. Remembering what it was like to be the stranger, the spiritual challenge is to let your heart open first in compassion for yourself, and then expand to encompass the reality of the stranger who stands before you.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a native of Paramus, now lives in New Mexico. She is the author of “Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land,” from which this is adapted.