I was waiting for an old friend outside of Café Mozart last Sunday. It’s a nice kosher restaurant. As I was sitting when a very frum Jew with a long black coat and a long white beard came and sat next to me. A very zeis man…
And we introduced ourselves to each other. He was from Monsey, visiting children and grandchildren in North Miami. He heard about this community and the kosher establishments so he and his wife drove up for lunch.
He asked me: are there a lot of Yiddin here? I said yes, thus the kosher restaurants in this plaza. In fact I said: This is one of the few communities in all the diaspora where Jews make up a majority.
He asked: what do they do? And I said: It began about 40 years ago with retirees. And then the services to support them. And over the last forty years we now have Jews doing everything here!
He asked: “Do you control the government?”
I said: “Not like in Kiryas Joel, but we have Jews in governmental positions. But our government is not a “Jewish government.” We are Americans and we see representations of all.”
He then demurred, “Maybe that’s better. Where I’m from he said: We control the government and all we do is fight!”
“Why do you fight?” I ask. And he said: “Because each group knows what the Kadosh Baruch Hu and the Torah demand of us! Maybe it’s better here.”
And I said: “Well if you choose to move from there to here….I’ve got the perfect shul we don’t fight much here!”
And I thanked him for his time and I realized he wrote my sermon! I didn’t want to thank him for this; I would have owed him royalties!
Last week we stood in services as we recited the Aseret HaDibrot. We do it beautifully here, as all these voices unite with knowledge of the words and the trope.
And immediately after the reading of the Ten Commandments, these fundamental words of our tradition, we begin with Mishpatim; a civil code of law. The parshah, as you have seen, is filled with the details of the laws and regulations that are to be the basis of the community we form. We see we realize that our religious tradition is not about faith alone, and certainly not about the glorious moments of our past, rather about the details as to how we do life. A great architect once said “God is in the details!” And so here begins a legal tradition, a tradition of justice that grows over time. And, we hope, a religious tradition that becomes more and more responsive to the human condition.
It was interesting to note that the first laws deal with the rights and protection of slaves. Our response here might have been: How can this possibly be? What’s going on? Have we been duped about the morality of this text? After all, we are newly liberated from slavery ourselves. This liberation and freedom is a core dimensions of our national story and our value system…so what is this? Can it possibly be that slavery is now, in a sense, institutionalized?
How do we answer this? I see and have seen a number of possibilities. One is that this text is an ongoing revelation, as it were. And its purpose was not and cannot be a response to a given point in history. Rather it unfolds. We live life differently. And we continue to see life being lived differently. Nothing is static. The conversation may begin with a question about today…it continues through the Torah…and lands back on the present moment.
And so the Torah is responding to a world where slavery was an institution used for the economic purposes of a given society….and although we clearly state and see it is wrong, unethical, immoral….the slave in a particular period of its existence was still protected by a law. The goal is to rid the world of slavery. The challenge is for us to be understanding enough and clear enough about our world to see; unbelievably…it still exists. Over three thousand years after Egypt, almost two hundred years after emancipation in the United States slavery afflicts our world and humans suffer. And it’s close by! Amongst workers in our fields, and sexual slaves. Mostly women and children remain enslaved.
And so we keep reading and should be compelled by a text and a tradition and a value system that stands in opposition to the objectification of any human being, and, protests the enslavement of any person no matter who, or where…
The order of the parshah goes like this…The laws begin with rules to protect those on the lowest rung of the ladder of power in a social context, and then there are a series of torts and civil regulations which are elucidated in the Talmud. Following the civil codes are detailed descriptions to guide the building of the Tabernacle, followed by rules for priestly garments, then sacrifices and finally laws of ritual purity.
In a fascinating commentary, known as the Kli Yakar noticed the order and made a very interesting interpretation based on the language that begins the parshah:
V’EILEH HAMISHPATIM ASHER TASIM LIFNEICHEM
And these are the Laws that you should place before them…
And it seems so simple, a verse that we wouldn’t really think twice about it. And this is the genius of Torah study.
First of all: It begins V’EILEH…AND these. And so we learn that what comes in this section is connected to what came before. So if the Ten Commandments were a lofty expression of values and laws…understand that what comes next is connected. And needed to elucidate the laws.
But there is something else.
It says: And these are the laws that you should put before “THEM.”
The question is – Who are “them?” –
We clearly would assume that “THEM” are the people. This is god speaking to Moses, saying, these are the laws to place before “THEM.”
The Talmud says something different, The Talmud says: These are the laws to place before the courts. The rabbis read “THEM” as the courts.
So we have the beginnings of a system of jurisprudence to insure fairness and JUSTICE. The law may be the law – but a system of interpretation and judgment needs to be made.
But this wonderful commentator said something different.
It means the following…before the laws guiding the people’s behavior as established in this system by God, there is something else, something much more important to place before them.
Derech Eretz Kadma l’Torah
Proper behavior between people, proper, respectful, kind interpersonal behavior comes before behavior before God.
And the comment reflects on a whole religious philosophy. And that is to be a Torah giant, to be religious person; to a tsaddik…one must first be a mensch. One must have compassion and empathy…one must show respect and care…one must be loving. Before you can approach God you have to be able to get close to people.
Otherwise, as the great Rav Kook sated, the derech to Torah comes out crooked.
What a beautiful insight.
So if people are constantly fighting about Torah…if people say Torah prohibits females and males to together at the wall, that’s not Derech Eretz.
My best friend used to have a sign in his kitchen that read it is good to be important; but it’s much more important to be good.
But I’d like to take this a step further. And it is in relation to the life of the Jewish people, our people that we observe and are consistently warned about.
You know the Pew study warned us about the disasters coming. It told us that our children aren’t going to be Jewish. The only remaining Jews will be orthodox or ultra-orthodox.
And the organizations to fight assimilation went to work and it became part of their battle cry to fight assimilation.
But the same report had something else to say.
It told us that there is a generation of kids and young adults out there who identify as Jews but don’t belong to the institutions of the last generation. More than that, their pride in being Jewish is very high. And they self-identity in numbers greater than ever before.
And…they see their Judaism as the driving force in living lives that are ethical, in being part organizations that work for Tikkun Olam, social justice, feeding the hungry and working for peace…and for them this too is Jewish.
And we are seeing a major shift. And I, for one, don’t see this as signaling something bad…rather something different. And I for one see our job as leaders, as a synagogue, as being responsible to tap into the yearning to be part of a community that makes a difference in its world.
And the Kli Yakar had it right…and that is that truly “derech eretz kadmah l’torah.”
And derech eretz here is about respect and kindness, but it is also literally the way of the land…and, although we celebrate and try to make meaning of our distinctiveness, we do so as part of the land in which we find ourselves…and that is our challenging…
It’s never been easy to understand this people of ours. And part of that is that in the very capability we have shown to survive we have also exhibited the capacity to adapt, to change and to bring Torah to our world and in our lives in a lot of different ways.
I think that’s what we’re seeing now.
In one hundred years I’ll define it better.
For now…I celebrate the numbers of Jews who identify as Jews because of positive values, even if they are not doing it the way of our friend from Monsey. But they are doing it with joy and a commitment to that which is good and ethical and just…
And what we learn is that if it means that to be religious we have to be filled with contention and judgement and disagreement, we can say: No thanks.
Because to be religious is also about being good, pursuing peace and showing kindness…
And that’s one thing…maybe the one thing that can never change.