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Spirituality and Politics, Social Change, and my Trip to Israel

Rabbi Sam Weintraub Shabbat Mishpatim 5776 February 6, 2016

Our Torah Portion this week begins “V’eileh haMishpatim asher tasim lifneihem – And these are the ordinances which you shall place before them“ (Exodus 21:1)
In last week’s Parsha we read about the world changing revelation of G-d at Sinai. Amidst thunder, lightning and earthquakes, B’nei Yisrael were given the Ten Commandments and the Torah, followed by special instructions about worship at the altar.
Our Parhsa this week continues then with mishpatim, ordinances, mostly ethical laws about property damage, labor relations, personal injury, loans and pledges, etc.
What is the unifying thread here?
Rashi comments, ‘Mah harishonin miSinai, af eilu miSinai, just as the preceding laws were given at Sinai, so these (ordinances) were given at Sinai.”
G-d, if you will, gives equal importance to ethical issues between people as to matters of ritual and worship.
Some argue that all this is to indicate that the Torah places equal importance on proper conduct between people and proper devotion to G-d. I would argue that the Torah gives primacy to laws between one person and another. Most of the laws in this week’s portion, following the revelation at Sinai, are pedestrian, concerned for example with timely payment of loans or damages caused by one’s livestock. Later on, when the Rabbis established the judiciary, they decided that ritual questions—is this chicken kosher? Is my sukkah of proper dimensions?—may be decided by one judge; property litigation required three judges; but capital cases, questions of life and death, required twenty three judges.
It is as if the Sages decided that G-d can take care of ritual infractions by Himself, but requires a special partnership, special vigilance from us to ensure our proper treatment of one another.
Sh’ma Yisrael, Adon’ Eloheinu, Adon’ Echad.
Hear, O Israel, Adon’ our G-d, Adon’ is One.
G-d is unified and that unity can be taken for granted. We, human beings, must struggle to maintain our unity.
Moshe Weineld, Professor Emeritus of Bible at the Hebrew University, in Social change in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East argues that mishpat, along with tzedek (righteousness) is a term associated primarily not with the fair disposition of individual court cases, but with responsibility for the entire social order. In ancient Israel, that responsibility would be fulfilled (or neglected) by the King. So, for example, David, Solomon and Josiah are describing as instituting mishpat and tzedek, justice and righteousness when they ascended to the throne.
These Biblical principles of social responsibility and unity also guided the modern nation of Israel in its early decades. In its Declaration of Independence and in practice, Israel established the very central Jewish principle of Areivut, social responsibility. Its vision and polices were communitarian, and the state provided resources to assure personal dignity, and promote the social and economic security of its citizens.
Sadly, that tradition has been drastically weakened. Today, Israel ranks (along with the United States) as one of the most unequal societies on the planet. In our country, the top ten percent of the population earn almost seventeen times the income of the lowest ten percent. In Israel the ratio is fifteen to one. In Israel, as in the United States, the economic fault line also intersects with other social fault lines, in its case the divides between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews, between Jewish and Palestinian Arab Israelis, and between residents of the country’s center and its geographic periphery. For example, Jewish students in the development towns on the periphery receive one quarter of the allotment of their peers in towns like K’far Saba or Ranana in the country’s center.
Last week, I was privileged to spend five days in Israel with a group of Brooklyn Rabbis and Jewish professionals on a UJA and Jewish Agency sponsored mission. I have been to Israel many times but this trip was uniquely informative and inspirational. We focused especially on central challenges facing Israel today, including social inequality, the Israeli Palestinian conflict, the social and psychological impact of terror, Jewish identity and pluralism, and building a shared society.
Most of us know about most of these challenges from print or electronic media. What was inspiring about our trip was journeying beyond the depressing headlines and statistics to meet amazing individuals and groups working creatively and doggedly to correct injustice and rebuild a society on Israel’s founding, Biblical values.
Our first day, for example, we shared lunch with Racheli Ibenboim, Rabbi Betzalel Cohen, and Moshe Friedman, all members of ultra-Orthodox Chareidi communities, and all working to free those communities from ignorance and dependency. Rabbi Cohen has founded Chochmey Lev, a Yeshiva where Chareidi boys learn math, English, history and science along with Talmud so that they can perform meaningful service in the IDF, attend university and enroll in the work force. Mr. Friedman, scion of an aristocratic Chareidi family, directs Kama-Tech, a program to train ultra-Orthodox engineers and integrate them into the high tech sector. So far, they have gotten jobs for about 5000 Chareidi men. Ms. Ibenboim is founder of Women Across Frontiers, the first Chasidic Chareidi feminist organization, which, among its various goals, fights discrimination in the work force where Chareidi women earn 30% less than their secular female counterparts.
We visited Yad b’Yad, or “Hand in Hand,” a network of schools throughout Israel, which offer shared elementary and high school education to thousands of Jews and Arabs. The two groups learn their own and the other’s language, history and customs, and join in dialogue groups and community service along with a core curriculum. These students, and their parents, live, learn, talk, argue, and grow together. The Yad B’yad network is flourishing, despite the current wave of stabbing terror, and despite violent attacks by right wing Jewish extremists.
We met with powerhouse visionaries with Dr. Jihad El Sana, a driving force behind the Ahed High School for Science in the Negev, which provides high level science instruction for boys and girls from the Bedouin sector. The students are accepted regardless of their financial capacity, and some come from unregistered Bedouin villages which lack paved roads or water treatment facilities. Despite many hurdles, student are now passing the critical national bagrut, pre-university matriculation exams, at a rate of 93%. The school is also 55% female, unusually high for an Arab Science School.
Dr. El Sana is also a Professor of Computer Science at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, a PhD from SUNY Stony Brook, and a Fulbright Scholar. With other Bedouin PhDs, he forsook the possibility of a comfortable academic or high tech career in the US to return home and work, as a volunteer, to advance Bedouin society and train its future leaders.
(By the way, the Ahed High School, as well as other projects we visited, is supported by UJA-Federation of New York. Dr. El Sana in particular pointed out that without support from UJA – New York his school “would not have happened.”)
In a coffee house in the development town of Yerucham, in the Western Negev, we met with Avi Dabush, a product of a traditional Mizrachi family in Ashkelon who is now a leading voice on issues of Mizrachi identity and social justice. Recently, and voluntarily, he joined Kibbutz B’ror Chayil, one of a ring of Kibbutzim only a few kilometers from the Gaza border (and home of our Shinshin, Itay Gilboa). He is also a founder of The Movement for the Future of the Western Negev which promotes the positive identity of Development Town residents (who are often Ethiopians, Mizrachi, Yemenite, Caucasians, or other minorities), the environmental sustainability of the Negev, and the exploration of paths for peace with the Palestinians in Gaza.
We were graciously and energetically hosted by Eli Nachama, a former actor and stage director who is now Principal of the Bialik Rogozin School Campus in poverty-stricken South Tel Aviv. This school provides hot, nutritious meals, a superior primary and high school education, art and music instruction, and most importantly personal safety to 1178 students who are mostly the children of poor Arab Israel families, refugees, asylum seekers and foreign workers. They come from 41 countries, and speak nine languages. Psychologically, the children are almost all post traumatic. Many have crossed deserts or forbidding mountains to reach Israel, and some have survived the disappearance, murder or rape of their parents and other family members. So, we very impressed by the irrepressible joy and enthusiasm of these children who we observed in computer labs and music class. You would never have guessed that many are survivors of horror. See more of them by watching the film “Strangers no More” which won an Oscar for best short documentary.
So this is the Israel that I saw last week, and these are the people and the institutions that I met. They are the hope of modern Israel. And they are the key to returning Israel to its founding ideals of communitarianism and social justice.
The Mishpatim, the civil and criminal regulations of this week’s Parsha, help us to see G-dliness in every part of existence, and to create a more just and harmonious society. Take these teachings to heart. Don’t just read the newspapers or watch TV channels about modern Israel, because their owners profit by recycling scandal and fear and alarm. Visit Israel, and organize your trip so that you can also meet with men and women, from all communities, who ae struggling to build a country where material, intellectual and social capital is shared by all.
With enough insight, dialogue and perseverance, with generous and strategic support, uv’ezrat HaShem, with G-d’s help, we can help to make Israel one, as G-d is one.
Shabbat Shalom.

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