Friday, February 9, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim 5778 Upwardly Mobile

Echoes of Eden 
Rabbi Ari Kahn 
Parashat Mishpatim 5778 
Upwardly Mobile 

Every society seems to have its "desirables" and "undesirables," mainstreamers versus outliers. Sometimes it is the "haves" and the "have-nots;" rich as opposed to poor; upper class, working class, or criminal class; natives as opposed to newcomers or strangers. For most of history, people were labeled at birth; more often than not, you were born into a particular social stratum, and you left this world in much the same condition as you arrived. Mobility between classes and castes was rare, if not impossible. 

One of the interesting themes in Parashat Mishpatim is the treatment of the “other.” The opening verses of the parashah (Shmot 21:1-6) introduce the concept of the Jewish slave. Later in the parashah (Shmot 22:2), we are told that a thief who is unable to make restitution to his victims is to be sold, in order to generate funds for restitution to the victims. Rashi (Shmot 21:2) explains the former case – of a Jewish slave – by connecting it to the latter case: A person becomes a slave as a result of his own crimes. He is sold into slavery in order to repay the victims. 

In the modern legal systems with which we are more familiar, convicted thieves are incarcerated. As a prisoner, he loses certain personal freedoms; he is supported by the state, and spends his time in the company of other unsavory characters. While the prospect of imprisonment may well serve as a deterrent, it often lacks the capacity to rehabilitate, and incarceration does nothing to redress the wrong which the victim has suffered. In contrast, in the penal system described in the Torah, the victim is compensated with the funds generated by the sale of the perpetrator, who is placed in a functional, normative environment, where, it is hoped, he can learn new methods of problem-solving and new modes of interpersonal behavior. This system offers hope for real change. Rather than sentencing him to a cell where he runs a high risk of becoming a hardened criminal, the offender may be rehabilitated as he works off his debt. 

The parashah goes on to present another situation involving slavery – one that is even more foreign to our modern sensibilities: A father sells his daughter into slavery. Needless to say, the entire concept is outrageous to us – but let us set aside our outrage for a moment as we try to understand the scenario and its implications. 

Rashi (Shmot 21:8) reiterates the opinion recorded in the Talmud that the money which changes hands in this scenario is in lieu of a ring; the "transaction" in this case creates a marriage. In fact, the Torah stresses that this young girl is intended for marriage - either to the man who made the “purchase,” or to his son. What the Torah is describing is what we would call an "arranged marriage."  

The subtleties of this situation are often overlooked: The father who makes this sort of arrangement for his daughter is clearly in a less-than-optimal financial situation. On the other hand, the man who pays the dowry is clearly a person of greater means. Thus, in this “arranged marriage,” the daughter of a poor family is catapulted out of poverty and into a wealthy family. The rigid lines between the socio-economic strata are crossed in a single leap – with no need for subterfuge, pretense, or social climbing. In so many societies, the only future for a girl born to a poor family was a life of servitude, but the Torah seems to create a process through which members of the wealthy class can become acquainted with women who might otherwise have been considered "below their station." In the Torah's scenario, the result of this acquaintance can and should be marriage. If the intended groom chooses not to marry this woman, the Torah considers it a “betrayal” (Shmot 21:8). Should the "transaction" of an arranged marriage fail to result in actual matrimony, both the prospective groom and the girl's father are guilty of betraying their responsibility to this unfortunate, vulnerable young woman (see Rashi, ibid.).

Modern readers have a hard time getting past the word “slavery;” if they manage to suspend judgement momentarily, they soon bump up against the concept of arranged marriage. Perhaps, though, the best way to read this parashah is to look beyond the particular case and take a moment to appreciate how these laws result in the redistribution of wealth and the possibility of social mobility. 

Parashat Mishpatim also has something to say about the non -Jewish slave, a person best described as an outsider both in cultural and economic terms. Even in this case, the Torah sees slavery as a process, not as a goal. The non-Jewish slave is on a fast track to conversion; from the process of slavery he emerges as a full-fledged Jew, with full rights and privileges. Moreover, the “master” may not physically mistreat the non-Jewish slave. Should he strike the slave and cause physical damage, the slave is granted not only freedom, but full recognition as a Jew. (Shmot 21:20-27) This person, who had been at the very bottom of the social order, is transformed into a convert - and thereby merits the very special status afforded to "Jews by choice" outlined in this parashah:  

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shmot 23:9) 

Over and over, the Torah calls upon us to empathize with the strangers in our midst – but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Rabbi Moshe Alschech understood this teaching somewhat differently: We were strangers in Egypt; more than that, we were idolaters. Culturally, religiously, economically and socially, we were the type of people that our present-day selves would find reprehensible. Remembering that we were slaves, strangers, untouchables, enables us to appreciate that people have the capacity to change, to rise above the misery of their present situation, station, or circumstance, and become something else. If we are able to look past the strangeness of Parashat Mishpatim's social order, we are able to see this very contemporary subtext: People can change. The social order is not preordained or immutable.  

Viewed through a different lens, perhaps Parashat Mishpatim contains the raw material for a Jewish version of a fairytale ending: A poor girl from an impoverished family can become a princess. Desperate criminals can be rehabilitated, and can become productive members of society. The stranger can become "one of us." Having been slaves who become free people, having been poor and then finding wealth, having been idolaters who became Jews, we know that this is not a fairytale. This is the story of the Jewish People who were liberated from Egypt. It is the story we are commanded to internalize and to teach our children.  

 © Rabbi Ari Kahn 2018
For more essays and lectures on Parashat Mishpatim:

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