Parashat Mishpatim

Exodus Morality

Whether or not we know the suffering of the slaves, we are commanded to act as if we do.

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As the title suggests, this week's parashah consists almost entirely of mishpatim--laws--about everyday living. Directed to a people who have traveled only a short distance in time and space from slavery, the mishpatim are anything but mundane legalisms--they are instructions for building a just society.

american jewish world serviceOne of the most profound directives is the incredible command, repeated twice in this parashah alone, "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20, 23:19)." This is the epitome of Exodus morality: we must not perpetrate upon others that which was perpetrated upon us. 

Memory of Bondage

This central, Jewish moral imperative was articulated when the memory of bondage still was very much alive. Because it is embedded in that memory of bondage, however, it contains an implied awareness that future generations would need to find a way to keep that memory vibrant.

The Exodus morality that is so clearly outlined in this one mitzvah is infused into our liturgy and rituals. At Passover, the directive to remember goes further: we re-enact the story as if we ourselves were enslaved and then freed. The repetition of this story helps us to "turn the memory into moral dynamic," to use the story as an energizing force for change. The Torah maps out for us the parameters of how experience can serve as the basis for moral action. Yet it is not only actual experience, but shared memory that provokes moral action.

Whether or not we actually know the suffering of the slaves, we are nonetheless commanded to act as if we do. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes, "The experience of slavery that breaks and crushes slaves does not destroy free people. It evokes feelings of repulsion and determination to help others escape that state." This divinely-given determination to help others drives our moral responsibility. 

Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Atrocities

In the modern era, of course, Jews have acquired a devastatingly unique understanding of what it is to be oppressed, abandoned, and subject to atrocity. We ought to infer from the Exodus morality that our particular knowledge of violence and genocide in the Holocaust conveys a similar obligation--we must remember and our memory must inform our responses to others who are suffering genocide and atrocity.

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Carol Towarnicky

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.