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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Parshat Mishpatim’

Parshat Mishpatim: Location! Location! Location!

Friday, February 17th, 2012

The Inauguration of the President of the United States has become both a complicated and expensive process. It begins with a meeting at the White House between the incoming and outgoing First Families, followed by a joint drive to the Capitol for the actual ceremony. Weather permitting, the inauguration is followed by a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. At the conclusion of the parade the new First Couple must quickly change attire in order to attend the many galas and balls being held in their honor that evening.

Interestingly enough, much of what transpires is dictated by tradition. The Constitution itself dedicates a very limited amount of space to the inauguration. The current date is set as January 20th, as per the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933. The text of the oath of office is presented in Article 2 Section 1 of the Constitution. It is a mere 35 words. Yet this almost matter-of-fact item in the Constitution has become one of the hallmarks of our democracy.

Congressional historian Donald Kennon explained: “It’s probably safe to say that the presidential inauguration is the transcendent ritual associated with the rise to power of a representative government. Unlike the coronation of a monarch or any ritual associated with the rise to power of a dictator or autocrat, the inauguration of the American President is a cyclical, regularly scheduled event held every four years. The regularity of presidential inaugurations lends a sense of reassuring stability, continuity and permanence to a political system that permits turnover in office holders and change in policy agendas. Moreover it is a peaceful change in government, unlike the violence that so often has accompanied a change in head of state elsewhere” (www.fpc.state.gov).

Among the many customs that have developed with respect to the inauguration is its location. Aside from extenuating circumstances, it has almost always taken place at the location of the legislative branch of government. Weather permitting, the President is escorted by a Congressional delegation from within the Capitol confines outside to take the oath in front of the American people. It is this fact, that the president takes the oath at the Capitol which interested me in this topic. My research question was, why?

A Google search found quite a non-scholarly suggestion (who knows? Perhaps it contains a kernel of truth). A person suggested that due to the previous president moving out of the White House and the new president and his staff moving in, the White House would be way too busy of a place to have the ceremony there. Therefore a different venue needed to be chosen – so why not the Capitol. However, Dr. Kennon offers the following possibilities.

The first reason he suggested is precedent. When George Washington took his oath of office, he went to Federal Hall in New York City where Congress was meeting at the time. A second reason Kennon suggested has to do, “with the fact that Congress is the first branch of American government. The first Article of the Constitution created Congress. It was the Continental Congress, after all, which led to the American Revolution. It was a legislative revolution, if you will.” It is held outside, in front of the people, to declare to the world that ultimately the president is answerable to the American people.

This idea, that when it comes to people in power the symbolism of location matters, is highlighted by the commentators at the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Torah begins the parsha with a discussion of the laws that Moshe needs to teach Bnei Yisrael. Rashi, in his commentary on the first pasuk, addresses why the discussion of societal and judicial laws is placed immediately following the Torah’s discussion of the mizbayach at the end of the previous parsha. Rashi explains that with this juxtaposition, the Torah is instructing us that the seat of the Sanhedrin must be established within the confines of the Beit Hamikdash. The anthology Iturei Torah relates the following explanation in the name of the Shlah Hakadosh’s son. Rav Horowitz explains that a major function of the Sanhedrin was to ensure the genetic purity of the Kohanim who served in the Beit Hamikdash. To effectively carry out this responsibility, the Sanhedrin needed to be located in close proximity to the Temple.

The Mei’ana Shel Torah quotes the following explanation from the work Avnei Eizel (which was actually an unpublished manuscript of the compiler of this anthology, Rav Zusha Friedman). For most of the nations of the world, the laws governing interactions between people are conventions set up by citizens to enable their society to function. They are bereft of any Divine influence. However, such laws within a Jewish society are very much religious laws as well. To demonstrate this point the Sanhedrin, which was ultimately responsible for all legal aspects of society, was housed in the Temple. By being there it was made clear to all that, for Jewish society, the interpersonal societal laws were Divine in origin, just as the ritual laws were.

Rabbi Lord Sacks: The Hardship Of Freedom

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

First in Parshat Yitro there were the Asseret Hadibrot (the Ten Utterances, or general principles). Now in Parshat Mishpatim come the details. Here is how they begin:

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything … But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life” (Exodus 21:2-6).

There is an obvious question. Why begin here? There are 613 commandments in the Torah. Why does Mishpatim, the first law code, begin where it does?

The answer is equally obvious. The Israelites have just endured slavery in Egypt. There must be a reason why this happened, for G-d knew it was going to happen. Evidently he intended it to happen. Centuries before He had already told Abraham it would happen:

“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there’ ” (Genesis 15:12-13).

It seems that this was the necessary first experience of the Israelites as a nation. From the very start of the human story, the G-d of freedom sought the free worship of free human beings, but one after the other people abused that freedom: first Adam and Eve, then Cain, then the generation of the Flood, then the builders of Babel.

G-d began again, this time not with all humanity, but with one man, one woman, one family, who would become pioneers of freedom. But freedom is difficult. We each seek it for ourselves, but we deny it to others when their freedom conflicts with ours. So deeply is this true that within three generations of Abraham’s children, Joseph’s brothers were willing to sell him into slavery – a tragedy that did not end until Judah was prepared to forfeit his own freedom so that his brother Benjamin could go free.

It took the collective experience of the Israelites, their deep, intimate, personal, backbreaking, bitter experience of slavery – a memory they were commanded never to forget – to turn them into a people who would no longer turn their brothers and sisters into slaves, a people capable of constructing a free society, the hardest of all achievements in the human realm.

So it is no surprise that the first laws they were commanded after Sinai related to slavery.

It would have been a surprise had they been about anything else. But now comes the real question: If G-d does not want slavery, if he regards it as an affront to the human condition, why did he not abolish it immediately? Why did he allow it to continue, albeit in a restricted and regulated way? Is it conceivable that G-d, who can produce water from a rock, manna from heaven, and turn the sea into dry land, cannot change human behavior? Are there areas where the All-powerful is, so to speak, powerless?

In 2008 economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein published a fascinating book called Nudge. In it they addressed a fundamental problem in the logic of freedom. On the one hand, freedom depends on not over-legislating. It means creating space whereby people have the right to choose for themselves.

On the other hand, we know that people will not always make the right choices. The old model on which classical economics was based, that left the making of rational choices to individuals, turns out not to have worked as hoped. We are deeply irrational, a discovery to which several Jewish academics made major contributions. The psychologists Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram showed how much we are influenced by the desire to conform, even when we know that other people have got it wrong. The Israeli economists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, showed how even when making economic decisions we frequently miscalculate their effects and fail to recognize our motivations – a finding for which Kahneman won the Nobel Prize.

How then do you stop people from doing harmful things without taking away their freedom? Thaler and Sunstein’s answer is that there are oblique ways in which you can influence people. In a cafeteria, for example, you can put healthy food at eye level and junk food in a more inaccessible and less noticeable place. You can subtly adjust what they call people’s “choice architecture.”

That is exactly what G-d does in the case of slavery. He does not abolish it, but he so circumscribes it that he sets in motion a process that will ultimately, even if only after many centuries, lead people to abandon it of their own accord.

OU Executive VP To Be Scholar In Residence At Beth Israel Cong.

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Orthodox Union Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil will return to South Florida to serve as scholar in residence at Beth Israel Congregation for Shabbat February 17-18, Parshat Mishpatim. The OU member synagogue is located in Miami Beach at 770 W 40th Street.

Rabbi Steven Weil

Rabbi Weil will give the Shabbat morning drasha on “Men Are from Mars, Women from Venus: The Orthodox Version.” He will present a shiur for men and women, beginning at 4:40 p.m., discussing “Mishpatim: The Great System That Makes or Breaks the Jewish People.” Rabbi Weil will also speak at seudat shlishit.

(Next week Rabbi Weil will lead a delegation of the OU’s top representatives who will be visiting 10 separate synagogues across South Florida to provide strength to the communities as they face today’s Jewish challenges.)

For further information, contact the synagogue at 305-538-1251.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/community/south-florida/ou-executive-vp-to-be-scholar-in-residence-at-beth-israel-cong/2012/02/10/

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