Stepping up

Like many TV shows, my favorite, “The Big Bang Theory,” occasionally begins with, “Previously on The Big Bang Theory…” and shows a few snippets from previous episodes to bring us up to speed. After all, so many things happen from one week to the next that it’s easy to lose track. That often happens with our weekly Torah readings; we begin a new parashah every week, and don’t always think to connect it to previous readings.

This week’s parashah, Mishpatim, gives us a clue that perhaps we need to look back. In the Torah itself, unlike our chumashim which put the haftarah after each parashah, one chapter often rolls into another. The text is “mi Sinai,” but the breaks aren’t. Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1, begins with the words, v’ayleh ha mishpatim asher taseem lifneihem, “And these are the laws you shall set before them.” The next several verses deal with the treatment of slaves, and I’ll come back to that shortly. The letter vav-which means “and”-at the beginning of the verse, suggests that it’s connected to Exodus 20:23, where God tells the people, “do not ascend my altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed on them.”

Our great commentator Rashi explains that climbing up steps-as opposed to walking up an inclined ramp-to reach the altar required taking a longer stride, and increased the possibility of one’s tunic opening, exposing an area that shouldn’t be exposed. For now, we’ll ignore the fact that later, the kohanim are told to wear linen pants to work.

What Rashi says that connects this final verse of last week’s parashah to this week’s comes from the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael: How is it possible, in the case of stones (which have no feeling) to have any disrespect shown to them? The Torah tells us that since they serve some useful purpose you should not treat them in a manner that implies disrespect! Therefore, in the case of a person who is made in God’s image, and who is particular about any disrespect shown to him or her, how much more certain is it that you should not treat him disrespectfully!

Enter a discussion of slavery, which the Israelites were freed from only a few short months ago! Might we not expect God to command, “Don’t keep slaves, for you were slaves in Egypt, and you know what it was like.”? There seems to be an assumption that some form of slavery will exist in this newly formed society. Rabbi Shai Held, in his commentary The Heart of Torah, points out that the Torah “…could have said, ‘since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you?'” But it doesn’t. We are commanded to have empathy for others precisely because of our experience.

Exodus 23: 9 commands, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Whether we’re dealing with global humanitarian crises, family dynamics and anything in between, may the memory of our collective and individual experiences move us to act with empathy and compassion, walking in God’s ways.

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