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Mishpatim and Its Contradictions

There are two contradictory impulses within our beloved Torah.

On the one hand, we are better than them.

“Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 22:19)

And on the other, we can do better for them.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

The two verses stand side by side.

Within our tradition (as well as other religious traditions), we see interpretations of chosenness colored by chauvinism and exclusivity. God’s love and concern is only befitting those who worship like us, those who behave like us, those who are like us. With the drawing of such lines, we become like privileged royalty, elevated above all others.

We also see chosenness as elevating our duty to others, as requiring of us an even greater responsibility to others. Yes this can at times be a burden, but it also provides a path to meaning. Chosenness then becomes a call to protect the ill treated, as personified by the stranger, and to better the world.

On which verse will our Torah rest? Do we wish to elevate the lives of others or do we see ourselves as elevated above them?

I am no longer sure that we can hold on to both, that we can affirm these opposing sentiments.

I recognize that most do not wish to hear such blunt honesty, but as we approach the third yahrtzeit of my teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, I wish to honor his memory by giving voice to such truthfulness. My rabbi was courageous and fierce, passionate and at times angry. There was at times an uncomfortable honesty about his teachings. He would scream at us about the dangers within our own tradition. I came to love that Rabbi Hartman was both Judaism’s fiercest critic and its most devoted believer. Even though most might prefer a feel good faith that caresses us with approval and asks little of anything of us, I prefer an honest and courageous one.

Perhaps there is reward discovered in such honesty.

Let me be forthright. There are those who see in our Torah evidence of their privilege. This is not what I choose to read. The Torah is meant to elevate our behavior. It is intended to call us to action. It is meant to ennoble our lives with a call to do better for others.

If we are to be a kingdom of priests it must not be about what we get but instead what we must do. If we are to be a holy nation then it must not come at the expense of others but rather from what we can do for others.

There may very well be these two impulses within the Torah, but we must choose one.

I know the choice I must make.

I will sing: “You shall not wrong a stranger…”

I choose the verse that uplifts all. I know of no other way of upholding the Torah’s import for the world at large. I must work to better the world.

Perhaps in the process I might even elevate my life and infuse it with added meaning.

For additional inspiration, take a few moments to watch this brief interview with Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot.