Parshat Mishpatim: From if … to when … to if

Parshat Mishpatim: From if … to when … to if


It is fascinating that in the space of just a few short weekly portions, the Torah progresses from describing the abundance of wealth that the Israelites accumulated at the time of their departure from Egypt to a scenario of potential poverty. In Parshat Bo we read, “Vayinatslu et mitzrayim” – “the Israelites despoiled Egypt” – as they made their way to freedom. Alas, as enumerated in this week’s reading the Torah envisions a time in the future when accumulated wealth will have become a thing of the past and a new reality will have set in – Im kesef talveh et ami.

How are we to understand the word im, most often understood as “if”? Should the verse be understood as: “if you lend money to my people” or “when you lend money to my people”? The latter understanding follows Rashi’s interpretation, which teaches that this is one of only three places in the Torah where the word “im” is to be understood as “when.” Rashi realizes that what is ours in life may transcend the Torah’s halcyon outlook where there will never be need within your community (see Deuteronomy 15:4). Times can be difficult and it is up to us to adapt to those circumstances to ease the plights of others.

Whether the Torah, or Rashi, could have ever envisioned the current economic times (duress?) is simply speculation. Yet what we have been seeing, reading, and – for some of us – even experiencing is fraught with uncertainty, frightening, but at times heartwarming. The Torah seems to be implying, with Rashi’s emphasis, that certain times will prove to be economically more difficult than others. When that time occurs it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to insure that each member of the community weathers the economic storm to the best of his or her ability.

Our community has indeed risen to the challenge at this difficult time. Understanding that there are so many who require assistance, and that perhaps not everyone is assisted as much as is necessary, it was nevertheless heartening to learn on Sunday of this past week of the group Bonim Builders stepping in to assist one family by providing them with refurbished and rent-free housing, enabling them to better cope with the financial difficulties that the present time poses. Not only has our community stepped in where there is a need, but its action has been recognized in the larger general community via the news media. Yet again, we are “or l’goyim,” a light unto nations, leading the way in teaching others through example how to treat one another at all times.

The Torah speaks in terms of lending money when circumstances dictate. However, we must read its words as a paradigm and a guide. The Torah is, in fact, encouraging us to reach out in whatever way is possible and necessary to help others, especially when the circumstances become dire. When we find the vehicles to help others – whether we are engaged in refurbishing homes, contributing actual monetary tzedakah, or something else entirely, we are partnering with the Holy Blessed One and will, say the ancient sages, eventually be rewarded for our efforts.

As times seem to worsen and become more difficult and uncertain, I find myself increasingly troubled by a passage that is said daily at the conclusion of the birkat hamazon. Some of the final words of this prayer, in which we have given praise to the Almighty for providing us with sustenance and the ability to procure the vital nourishment necessary to sustain life, we encounter the phrase “na’ar hayeetee gam zakantee v’lo ra’iti tzadik neezav v’zaro mevakesh lahem” – “I was young, I have grown older, and I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor their children begging for bread.” There has been a mahloket, a debate, in my own family concerning the validity of this passage – and it has led some to recite it in an undertone, while I have continued to recite the passage aloud. Yet, as the present becomes more challenging, I am beginning to wonder if my understanding is simply Pollyanna-ish and I am refusing to accept reality and realize that these words might not – at least at this time in history – be true.

I hope for the day when all people will be able to sustain, nourish, and support themselves, a day when the “im” found in this week’s parsha can again be translated as “if” and not “when,” indicating that sustenance and prosperity have returned to our society. May that time come soon, and be a harbinger for the words that follow na’ar hayiti. Namely, may God bless His people – and indeed our entire world – with completeness and peace.

Shabbat Shalom.