Parashat Mishpatim

Critiquing Our Leadership

While it's easy to complain about poor leadership, Parashat Mishpatim challenges us to critique from a committed, engaged perspective.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.

Overview

The word mishpatim means "laws" or "ordinances," and comes from a root which means judge or judgment. This parashah contains civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws--the Torah doesn't seem to make the same distinctions that we do between civil and criminal, religious and secular legislation.

Towards the end of the parashah, the holidays are reviewed, and God repeats the promise to bring the people to the land of Canaan. Moses makes a sacrifice in front of the entire Israelite leadership, and they have a wondrous vision of God. Moses goes back up the mountain, and stays there in a cloud to receive the law.

In Focus

"You shall not revile God, nor curse a leader among your people. " (Exodus 22:2--but counted as Exodus 22:28 in some Christian translations.)

Pshat

Chapter 22 contains a mix of different kinds of laws, pertaining to everything from liability for damaging animals to sexual prohibitions to dietary laws. In context, perhaps this law, about cursing judges and leaders, is related to the other laws in that everybody accepts some restrictions on their freedom in order that society may function. Without some common understanding of the customs of ownership, family life, sexuality, and so on, it might be hard to live together as a community. Similarly, if people do not accept some form of leadership, society would break down into anarchy, which is anathema to the culture of the Bible.

Drash

To many commentators, this is one integrated commandment, because they understand leadership as fulfilling the word of God. Thus, someone who curses the leader or the judge is implicitly rejecting the authority of God, Whose laws the leader is (at least theoretically) enacting.

However, the commandment not to curse a leader is by no means a commandment to accept flawed leaders without question--the Bible is full of positive examples of people criticizing their leaders. A gentle example comes from the previous parashah, when Yitro, Moses's father-in-law, gives him some constructive criticism about taking on too much, and then advises him to delegate many of his responsibilities. (Exodus 18)

A more forceful example of criticizing a communal leader is the prophet Natan's famous rebuke of King David, after David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed on the battlefield so he could marry her. (2 Samuel 11-12) Natan approaches the king directly, and even gets David to confess how wrong his deeds were--there was no question of letting David get away with corruption just because he was the king.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.