Who is Asking? Some Thoughts on the Torah Portion, "Mishpatim"
We are living in tremendously vulnerable times. This is evident in a commonly thrown concept of world leadership called “The Deep State.” This is the notion that the truth we know isn’t the real truth, and that there is some other force at play pulling the strings of power to make decisions on our collective behalf. Such thinking resonates with a profound mistrust we have in our world today. Even casual conversation with people we consider friends can be laden with the suspicion that maybe what they say and share isn’t how they really act. Taken seriously these thoughts can be extremely dangerous.
The remedy to this fearful thinking isn’t the formation of a covert team to discover the real truth behind what people tell us, nor should we blindly place our trust in what people say and do to measure their sincere intentions. Instead, Judaism and Jewish wisdom offers us a wise and time honored practice of sacred interpretation.
We could use a little more Jewish wisdom in times of great mistrust and ambivalence.
Take for example one of the laws found in this week’s Torah reading entitled, “Mishpatim,” or civil laws. We read:
“If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep?” (Ex:22:25-26)
On the surface, this seems to be another law in the codes of civil behavior outlined in the Torah. If you’re an employer and require an employee to provide collateral for the work you need performed, you cannot demand something essential to their livelihood. Even if an agreement is reached with something of such vital importance, the employer must return it to the employee before the end of the day.
We must ask: Why did the message need to be framed in the form of a question? Is there some doubt here that the text is responding to? What was God, here the speaker, concerned about?
Questions are the doorways to a deeper truth. The Torah asks a question when it wants us to learn more than what is simply on the surface. Our time-honored tradition of interpretation is a kaleidoscope of meaning that emanates truth. So writes the Zohar:
Woe to this one who says that the Torah came to simply relate stories in an ordinary language, because if this is so, even in these times we could make a Torah from ordinary tales, and one even nicer than from those [ordinary tales]. If the Torah came to explain worldly subjects, even the rulers of the [present] world have books of even greater merit. If so, we could emulate what they [those stories] say and use them to compile some such Torah of our own. But really, of all that the Torah says, it holds supernal truths and sublime secrets. (Zohar, Bamidbar, Behaalotecha)
The question compels us to read beneath the surface. The seemingly obvious rule conveys a powerful message of human dignity and responsibility, one that cannot be expressed directly. Work is transactional. It is a tool of commerce. The Torah cautions against this, reminding us that even when work seems just like work, there is potential for deeper meaning to be gleaned. There is a concern for human dignity here that is not readily seen.
And so, great interpreters of our tradition imagined God was teaching a different lesson than decent work practices in this text. We read:
The Holy One, blessed be He, says as it were: “How much do you owe Me! See, your soul ascends night by night to Me and renders account of its doing and so becomes My debtor, and should be kept as a pledge; and yet I return it to you every morning. Thus, too, you should do: take the pledge and restore it, take it again and again restore it!” (Tanchuma Mishpatim, 16, quoted by Rashi)
What’s less important here is who is asking the question, or even the implication of what the question evokes in response. What this cherished prism into God’s thinking reveals for us is that recovering from our mistrust and vulnerability is a courageous and loving attempt to see the way we treat each other having cosmic significance.
Our response may inspire us to imagine that life is so precious that we value the dignity of individuals and communities not by what they can give us, but what we can give them. Our response enables us to imagine that life is so delicate, that we need to protect the health and well-being of everyone trying to provide a life for themselves and others with a mutual expression of care and respect. Our response reminds us that we value life like God values life.