Are we still slaves of our past?

Last week in Yitro we read about the giving of the Ten Commandments and in this portion, we will see 53 mishpatim, judgments or injunctions.  The Ten are divided into three sections: The first three are the Mitzvoth describing our relationship with the Creator; the middle two, the Chukkim are about our relationship with ourselves, and the last five, the Mishpatim, concern our behavior toward our neighbor. It is important to understand that these are not LAWs, rather they are principles that help us to have good and healthy relationships.

These 53 injunctions were not presented in any particular order. There is a Hebrew expression – “ein mugdan u’meuchar b’Torah – ומאחר בתורה מקדם אין ” –  there is no earlier or later in the Torah” which means that the Torah is not written in chronological order. It means instructions, it is pedagogical, and is meant to teach us principles to live by. I cannot emphasize enough that the Ten Commandments are our constitution by which everything else must be measured. All the other writings are applications of these ten.

The portion Mishpatim begins with “וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם” – “and these are the ordinances which you will set before them.”  It doesn’t say that He was ordering us to do them; I repeat, they are not laws which He enforced upon us rather we are given the choice to obey or not. The Almighty gave us “Bechirah Chofshit – בחירה חופשית   – Free Will” and knows our “kavanah”- the intention of our heart. He gave us the privilege of making our own choices regarding how we live but this makes us responsible for any consequences because of our actions. This also means that the Almighty doesn’t punish us, as many religious leaders teach, rather we are simply reaping the consequences of our behavior, good or bad.

In Exodus 24:7, The Hebrew people said “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do and listen  כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע (to listen means to obey).   If we understand that God is not the one who punishes us but that we harvest the consequences of our disobedience, then we can also understand the true meaning of His gift of free will. Most religions teach that doctrines save us, that we are not responsible for our actions, and that someone or something else will pay for our sins; all we have to do is believe according to their doctrines and everything will be fine. They have become mercenaries of religions, offering us a variety, each according to its many benefits. Someone told me that he wanted to become Jewish.  I asked him why he isn’t happy with who he is. As Jeremiah said, “can the leopard change its spots or a person change the color of his skin?” The Torah is teaching us that the Creator created all humanity and chooses people for different roles.  Adam was chosen to supervise the creation; Eva would be his helpmate. Each had his role, both of which were of equal value. We are facing many problems in the world today because everyone is unhappy with who they are and want to be someone or something else.

These mishpatim are for us to read, observe, and apply. Why does this portion begin with the ordinances on slavery, especially for Hebrew slaves?  The new nation had just left Egypt and was infected with a slave mentality.  Israel had been formed in the womb of her surrogate mother, Egypt. This can be compared to a mother who is an addict.  In the case of Egypt and its many gods, the addiction was to idolatry. The baby Israel became contaminated while still in her womb. At her delivery, the new baby had inherited all the symptoms of drug addiction to slave mentality and idolatry.

Today there is an epidemic of heroin destroying North America. The drug that is used to slowly wean people away from heroin is called methadone, although similar it is less addictive. Supposedly this will help the addict to become free of heroin in the future. In the same way, our Creator brought this baby girl, who was addicted to idolatry, and gave her a less addictive drug to help free her.  That is what He is doing with the giving of the ordinances in the Torah.  For example, the korbanot, the offerings or sacrifices, were not to be taken literally, rather the principle behind them is that they would help the new nation to slowly be redirected away from the pagan Egyptian sacrificial system to a more sanitized system until they could finally be freed from it completely. That is why we no longer have a sacrificial system.

The Hebrews had been slaves. Had they been pampered in Egypt by a loving mother? On the contrary, Egypt had been an extremely harsh master making it very difficult to change the slave mentality of her child. Couldn’t the Creator have simply waved His magic wand and set them free of this mentality?  Of course, but He wanted to allow them to exercise their Free Will.  Remember, God doesn’t enforce His will upon us; He teaches us. It is up to us to respond.  Imagine the important position He has given us.

A slave is like a baby who is unable to make any decisions, however, now baby Israel would need to grow up and become independent. All these mishpatim, from chapters 21 – 24 would teach them how to treat themselves, their neighbors, their animals, and even their enemies, and the animals of their enemies. They would need to learn what to do in all situations that applied to them at that time. Although times have changed, the principles remain the same.  For example, when someone had gone bankrupt where they lost everything, even their cloak, the mishpatim teaches that it had to be returned to them at night to keep them warm. This is a principle of mercy, of compassion. How do we apply this today? If we have a mortgage on our house that we cannot pay due to a temporary loss of income, what does the bank do? Instead of assisting a person to get back on their feet, they take his house and throw the family onto the streets. This is not Torah.  Greed is more important than mercy.  Torah teaches us to do good even for our enemy.  When we return the animal of an enemy who has run away, imagine how that changes the heart of our enemy toward us.

It is far more important to apply the principles of the Torah than to take them literally which depicts a progression of understanding concerning our behaviour. The Word of God is not black and white, it forces us to live in the grey areas where we have to work and sweat to find the answers on how to best live – to be just, kind, and merciful toward each other.

Most of us still have that slave mentality where we prefer to be dependent upon others to make our decisions for us but the Creator wants us to think for ourselves, not to blame others for what happens to us as Adam and Eve did. Later we will see how even Aaron our High Priest, when confronted by Moshe, blamed the community for the sin of the golden calf. When we are confronted with something we did wrong, we tend to justify our actions, instead of taking responsibility.  However, justification is having a slave mentality which leaves no room for growth!  People love to ask me, as your rabbi, if it is all right for them to do this or that.  I ask them “Am I your conscience?”  In this way, if they are questioned about what they are doing, they can say, well the rabbi said it’s okay.

Mishpatim teaches us to respect others, to do what is right for others, even putting their needs before our own. When people challenge you about something you have done, listen to them, thank them for their advice, examine it, and then decide for yourself. It’s time to grow up. Torah teaches us to take responsibility for what we do, and the beauty is that we can then be spared having to suffer the consequences because we made the effort to make it right.  That is true teshuvah.

At the end of chapter 24, Moshe went up Mount Sinai a second time and returned with the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone by the Finger of God (an anthropomorphic term, not literal).  In this, the Creator is showing us that the Ten Commandments are unchangeable. We are given no choice in our obedience to them. Everything else is how to apply them to our lives.  For example, Shabbat is Shabbat. The saddest part is that in Israel, the Shabbat is no longer respected and there is no reverence for the Shabbat. Christianity changed it to Sunday and Islam to Friday. Are they more enlightened? Is later revelation better than earlier revelation?

To sum up and to best understand the Torah in its Hebrew context – do not take it literally.  Do not assume that it was written chronologically, but rather that the stories are to set down principles by which to live and which will stand the test of time.  Do not justify yourself, be responsible for your actions, and always choose life. All these injunctions given to us by the Creator are for our good…not to make us miserable. In Devarim, our Creator constantly tells us that He has given us life and death and begs us to choose life.

Are you ready to be responsible?  Are you ready to stop justifying yourself and instead be brutally honest about who you are?  Are you ready to stop having a slave mentality that makes you dependent upon others to tell you how to think?  This is how to develop a personal relationship with the Bore Olam. Blessed be His Name!

Taken from Ranebi’s message on 25 Shevat 5778

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