This D’var Torah was presented by Austin Zoot, NFTY Religious & Cultural Vice-President, during NFTY’s Veida at the URJ Henry S. Jacobs camp in February.
Shabbat Shalom. As our Torah readers so beautifully just read, this week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is our first portion after the giving of the 10 commandments. After we see the big ten, we see a progression of what seem to be random laws. When you take a closer look, though, three of the most random elements of this text actually link together to strike a significant chord to our community that we have built.
One of the first set of instructions concerns the actions of a goring ox. We see two different situations set up. The first is that the animal gores a man or woman to death, and that the animal is not eaten, yet the owner is not punished. Basically, we punish the animal for the problem, not the owner. In the second situation, however, we see an owner who knows that the ox has a prior history of goring, and does nothing to stop the incident from happening. The question is though, why is there this dichotomy? Wouldn’t it make sense that if your animal gorges someone, you should be held accountable?
When we read a text, we each draw something different from it. We have an outline, a meaningless string of words. We must then fill it with the intention, the meaning, the resonance to it ourselves. As NFTY’s General Board, we see this text as an instruction. We are told that we must work to be understanding of the random incidences that happen to us. Sometimes programs go wrong. Sometimes guitar strings break. Sometimes aliens land in the middle of our programs. (Bet that hasn’t happened to you). We are told in this portion that we are not to be held accountable for the actions of fate, because it is not by our fault that they occurred. If, on the other hand, we know that the ox has a history of goring, or the program materials were turned in late, than we must be held accountable. This is not a way of point fingers. The blame is not given simply for the purpose of busting someone. The real intention of this is to say that each and every one of us is responsible for the actions that we knowingly take on, and that we must be willing to face the consequences of these actions. We are not allowed to look the other way and pretend these things aren’t happening.
Another segment of the text discusses the requirements when someone find’s their neighbors livestock running loose in the fields. We read “When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must raise it with him nevertheless.” What does this mean to us? We aren’t exactly shepherding animals around in our lives, although sometimes it feels like that at regional events.
What really rings true to us is the necessity to depend on one another. It isn’t just enough to being willing to work to make our own work valuable to the community. I can’t lead an entire region by myself. I can’t make an event run simply by my own work. We have to depend on one another to ensure that the work gets done and that it works done well. It is not enough to just get your ass up. You need to make sure you get everyone’s ass moving.
The distinction is also made that it is the property of your enemy. Cleary, we, as people, are disinclined to make the lives of our enemies easier. Why, then, does the Torah ask this of us? Because we are taught in Judaism that we are not just meant to do what is easy. We have to do what is right. What is right is to strengthen the whole community, despite the way that we may feel about these people. Because, in our line of work, we are asked to work with people of all different kinds; from our best friends to those who we cannot stand. We will lose all of the benefit that we derive from NFTY if we allow our dislike of someone ruin the product or the holiness of the actions themselves. This means that it is not about who we are working with, but what we are working for.
The final section that Evan read this morning discussed not oppressing the strangers in our midst, because, as we are constantly reminded, we too were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are constantly having this stranger situation thrown upon us. We make such a significant deal about our past as slaves. We, as NFTYites in 5772, know very little of what it means to be slaves. But we do know what it means to be a stranger. Because each and every one of us was a stranger at some point in our NFTY lives. We were new members, we were awkward and shy. We, as is always the case, have an obligation. As God reminds us to remember what it was like to be a stranger in the land of Egypt, we must remember what it was like to be a new participant and make that experience all the less strange and awkward for the participants.
So where does this portion leave us? We seem to be all over the place with these laws. How does a Torah portion that is filled with such random legal clarifications speak to us and resonate in our lives as the General Board of NFTY? Because we are asked to be held accountable. We are asked to own up for the shortcomings of our community, and take full responsibility. We are taught that not only must we be responsible for the work of our own hands, but also for the work of every member of our community, no matter how we may feel about them personally. And we are taught that we must be conscious of everyone in our midst, whether they be stranger or otherwise.
We, as one community, are challenged by rules. We have so much coming at us, and it can be such a challenge to make sense of it all. But having the book in front of us can help guide the path. We aren’t in the dark. By adding meaning to what is written so long ago, we are able to add all of the ingredients together to make the kind of Holy community that we are striving for.