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How to cope in the apocalypse


Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

On a recent cold, rainy day, I was in my car listening to “Bookworm” on KCRW, as the dulcet tones of host Michael Silverblatt interviewed author Michael Tolkin about his new L.A.-based dystopia, “NK3,” in which a virus has destroyed human society. The host posed the following question:

“Given that I feel, every morning when I wake up, I’m waking up into the Apocalypse, or at least into the pre-Apocalypse, do you feel this is an unusual sensibility?”

The author responded that Silverblatt’s experience is perfectly normal in the wake of the presidential election. We all feel that “there’s going to be some mass culling of the herd,” Tolkin said.

An exchange like this might have been shocking before Jan. 20. But now, we find ourselves in a time when it’s normative for even our literary elite, who usually are concerned with imaginary worlds far from our own, to describe the era in which we live as being tinged with the same horror that inhabits their fiction.

Yet somehow, I found their words comforting and memorized them. It reassured me that I am not alone in feeling this way, nor are the people I meet and counsel.

In fact, we are never alone, even in the darkest of times. As this week’s parsha might be understood to say, we always have one another, and we have civility, and we are had, by God.

The parsha is Mishpatim, or “laws,” a section of Exodus packed with rules about how to behave in a civilized society. God makes clear that we are required to respect one another, and take care of one another and one another’s property. Our feelings about one another have no say in the matter.

We are told to assist the fallen donkey of an enemy, and our own “degraded” countrymen — those who have lost their status, for one reason or another. We are told not to oppress foreigners, since we know what it feels like to be foreign. Injury, theft and property damage lead to financial restitution, even when the victim is a slave. Gouging interest shall not be levied.

Falsehood must be rejected, both in our personal interactions (by eschewing gossip) and in a court of law (by permitting only admissible evidence). We must reject the ways of the majority when what they want to do is evil — rather, we are to stand up for what is right and true, even when it’s not easy, even when we feel all alone. And we must demand a system of fair judges and obey their orders.

Moses reports all of these rules to the Israelite people. The people hear them, and they respond in unison: “Na’ase v’nishma” — We will do and we will understand. That is to say, we will accept these laws as fact, and go about the process of making sense of them to ourselves later on.

Where did these ex-slaves come up with the chutzpah to make such an assertion? According to the Talmud, only angels have the capacity to completely surrender their will before God. Yet the Israelites were not super-human. They weren’t even super-gifted, spiritually. They needed Moses to intervene and hear God’s words for them, or they would have died.

According to the 18th-century Chasidic master Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, what they did have was a certain awareness. This is something that everyone can tap into that will allow them to connect to God-ness, no matter how low their spirits, and how far off from God they come to feel.

“God is called the ‘Life of Life,’ ” they reminded themselves (as quoted by Rabbi Larry Tabick in his book “The Aura of Torah”). “All the life in the world, domestic or wild animals, birds, or the human eye — their life force is the Blessed One. Hence, God is the Life of Life, the life of all that lives. So, when you fall from your level, you should think: ‘Am I not alive? And who is this life force of mine? Is it not the Creator?’

“There they would find that God is also present, even though in a very contracted state.”

Life has its ups and downs; times when we feel infused with spirit, and fearful times when hope seems unattainable. Still, we must remember what the Israelites were able to do when they heard God’s laws. They let themselves feel connected — to one another, to God and to the world. And then they could trust again.

Trust in the system is essential to civilization, and this starts with a communal sense that civility is anchored in goodness, or Godness, and that all life is anchored in the Source of life.

Make time for connection, both human and spiritual. The anxiety of the day will still be there when you want to come back to it, but you will be stronger, and the world healthier, for your having been away for a while. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is a board-certified health care chaplain working in home hospice and institutional settings. She is a provider of creative Jewish after-death ritual (sacred-waters.com) and owns a referral agency for clergy in private practice (lacommunitychaplaincy.com).

7 Haiku for Parsha Mishpatim by Rick Lupert (Treat your donkeys well.)


I
The Torah says let
your slaves go after six years.
I say don’t own slaves.

II
Eye for eye, tooth for
tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
and so on and on.

III
Virgins. Animals.
So many rules on who you
can’t get jiggy with.

IV
You don’t have to tell
me twice to help the donkey
of my enemy.

V
I wonder if the
gluten free worry about
the unleavened feast.

VI
Anyone you meet
could be the one who was sent –
angel among us.

VII
Up he goes to write
down all that has happened and
all that will happen.


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Torah portion: Learning Torah through the kid with special needs


The chiddush, that elusive new piece of wisdom that brings insight to my week, often comes from my students. With fresh eyes and hearts open to the inspiration that life has hidden away for us, they never fail to amaze me with their chochma (wisdom). This week, three people — our rabbinic intern Dusty, a 12-year-old named Alex, and Patti, a master teacher — provided this week’s entre into Torah truth. 

Dusty Klass, a fourth-year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), is a rock star as Congregation Or Ami’s intern. Almost instinctually, she finds just the right key to unlock the teachings of Torah and provide that “ah ha,” chiddush moment. This happened for me as Dusty pointed out the wisdom in Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. 

Through Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of HUC-JIR’s rabbinical school in Los Angeles, Dusty discovered two kinds of laws in Mishpatim. First are casuistic laws, characterized by their “when X, then Y” structure: When a fire is started and spreads too far, then the one who started the fire must make restitution (Exodus 22:5). When you happen upon your enemy’s donkey wandering around, then you must take it back (Exodus 23:4). These laws, encompassing most of Mishpatim, present the proper way to react when something occurs. 

The second category of laws is more directive: You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger  (Exodus 22:20). You must not spread false rumors (Exodus 23:1). You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong … nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute (Exodus 23:2-3). These laws are not case-specific. We are not told: “If you see a stranger, you must not wrong her,” or “When you hear a rumor, do not spread it.” Rather, we are told to “do this” or “don’t do that” in order to propel us to act in pursuit of higher principles. Forming the bedrock of Judaism’s beloved ethical laws, these laws goad us toward values-based living.

So Mishpatim tells us there are certain principles that transcend individual cases, but also that there are correct responses to particular occurrences. How relevant it seemed as I thought about 12-year-old Alex. 

Alex has full walk-in privileges to my office. At Or Ami, he just walks right in and no one, including me, blinks. Why? Because Alex was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and with significant social, behavioral and learning challenges. And because Alex has such a love of Judaism that his exuberance sometimes cannot manage social expectations. He loves his synagogue, so when he walks up on the bimah during services, we just smile and give a hug. 

Alex is learning Hebrew with master teacher Patti Jo Wolfson. No one — including his adoptive parents who invest so much energy into Alex — thought he could ever learn to read Hebrew, let alone become a bar mitzvah. But Or Ami, like most Reform synagogues, is committed to the principle that any child of a member who works to the best of his or her ability is entitled to a Jewish learning experience and to become bar/bat mitzvah. That’s the proactive principle, one of the types of laws that Dusty illuminated from Mishpatim, which guides us to treat each child with special needs, like every other child, as one created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s image).  

The reactive type of laws shines light through Miss Patti, a patient teacher who thought ahead about Alex’s bar mitzvah preparation. Does he go into the congregation’s regular Bar Mitzvah Boot Camp program and then on to our regular bar mitzvah tutor? Will it work for him? 

As his mom, Joeli, explained, Alex is learning Hebrew only because we discovered, in the person of Miss Patti, the key to unlocking Alex’s ability to learn. Here come’s Dusty’s causality principle: the “if … then” of Mishpatim. If, because of Miss Patti, Alex learns when he hasn’t learned before, then we should build his bar mitzvah preparation process around that learning relationship. Reacting to the special needs of this unique kid, we respond by embracing his unique path, and changing our rules. 

Incidentally, Alex’s Torah portion will be a special one, Deuteronomy’s V’ahavta, which he will learn first to chant as a prayer, and then will rediscover anew in the Torah. V’shinantam livanecha (Deuteronomy 6:7 — “You shall teach it to your children”) has the quality of repetition. We repeatedly teach Alex this stunning piece of Torah so he can repeatedly remind us of our responsibilities. 

So that’s the chiddush — our responsibility to be both proactive and reactive in embracing one of God’s cherished children. At first Dusty thought this teaching was instinctual and obvious, but not everyone realizes that children with special needs, created b’tzelem Elohim, deserve the full embrace of our synagogues. So we must teach it again and again. 

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s are published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He and his wife, Michelle November, are writing a book on Jewish spiritual parenting. He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

Mishpatim: We are all strangers


This post originally appeared on Neesh Noosh.

In Mishpatim, twice God tells the Israelites not to oppress a stranger because they were strangers in the Egypt. (22:20 and 23:9). This is central to Jewish identity. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “To be a Jew is to be a stranger.”  Rabbi Shai Held writes that, “since you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse or mistreat the stranger.”

Indeed, the Israelites experience as strangers in Egypt and throughout the diaspora provides the imperative that we not only support the strangers in our midst but stand in solidarity. Rabbi Held continues, “Empathy must animate and intensify your commitment to the dignity and well being of the weak and vulnerable. And God holds you accountable to this obligation”

R. Sacks explains a teaching of Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar (Ohr ha-Hayyim)“Therefore they are commanded not to feel superior to the ger [stranger], but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt. As such, it becomes a command of humility in the face of strangers.”

Some of the strangers in our midst today are the immigrants who make up 13 percent of our nation (and 16 percent of the workforce). Over 11 million are undocumented people, including more than four million children and teenagers.  They are often pawns of our political and economic systems. One child described his illegal status as like an “invisible prison.”

Our food system is wholly dependent on immigrants–both documented and undocumented–and would collapse without them. Indeed, much of what keeps our food fast and cheap is due to the exploitation of workers. The fast food industry has approximately two million immigrant workers. In agriculture, at least 53 percent are undocumented.   And, “without secure legal status, immigrants on farms have limited rights and trouble accessing resources that could protect them from abusive practices and appallingly low wages.”

Due to the decline in unions and the consolidation of meat processors (four handle about half of all meat processing in the US), the meatpacking industry has become a hotbed of worker exploitation and abuse. As Tom Philpott noted, “By the ’90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void.”

And while the immigrants who plant, harvest, slaughter and serve us food are stuck in the crossfire of political battles, politicians across the spectrum stand in solidarity with them.  Recently, President Obama spoke about fixing our immigration system and asked, “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future? Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works together to keep them together?”

Mike Huckabee the former Republican governor of Arkansas, said, “It hardly seems Americans should truly feel threatened by people who pluck chickens, pick tomatoes, make beds, wash dishes or mow lawns.”

My great grandparents, Rose and Abe Shulman, left the Ukraine with two of their children to immigrate to the United States in the early 20th century. Their family grew to five children, and he worked as a tailor. They were quite poor, but safe from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Fast forward a few generations to last winter, when I attended a Shulman family reunion with relatives coming from towns and cities across the country, such as Mobile, AL, Burlington, VT, New York, Seattle, Fort Worth.  Many of the Shulman’s are now part of the country’s “elite”–doctors, lawyers, judges, corporate executives. They are no longer perceived as “strangers” in the United States. But, as Rabbi Sacks concludes, “Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

Mishpatim Vegetables and Beans

  • 5 carrots sliced into rounds
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 3-5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1.5 cups Great Northern Beans
  • 1 large handful of kale, chopped
  • 1 garnet yam, chopped
  • 2.5 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

1. If the beans are dry, soak and then boil (I use a pressure cooker which makes things quite easy).

2. Add 1 tbsp olive oil, saute onion until soft. Add chopped carrots and yam and cook over low heat until soft and nearly carmelized, about 30 minutes. You might have to add water to prevent drying and burning. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. In a separate pan, pour 1 tbsp olive oil and chopped garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes on low heat to prevent burning, and then add kale. Cook until kale is nearly fully wilted and then add beans. Cook for another minute or so. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. On a platter, arrange the two dishes in concentric circles for presentation to represent the “stranger.” Then, fold all of the ingredients together to show that there is no stranger: the dish is combined as one. I served with polenta, but rice, pasta or another grain would also be delicious.

B’tayavon!

On equal footing: Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)


I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration from the hospital room of my 92-year-old friend Harriet. She was having an EKG during it, even though we all agreed the numbers would not provide an accurate assessment of her condition — her medical condition, that is. 

“You have no idea,” she said to us, “what it means to me … that I lived long enough. I never imagined I would hear what I’m hearing today — the president of the United States including me in an inaugural address. The president of the United States saying the words ‘our gay brothers and sisters’ in his inaugural address. What I lived through — the hiding, the fear, the exclusion, afraid for my job … my livelihood. Unless you are my age, you can have no idea what it was like or what this means.” 

Harriet’s “test” revealed a heart condition, all right: “I love that man,” she said over and over as the president spoke.

I thought back to Obama’s interview in May 2012, when he said that his thinking was “evolving,” and he publicly supported the right of same-sex couples to legally marry. I thought back to his signing the end of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (begun during the Clinton administration), and the Obama administration’s decision not to defend DOMA (the “Defense of Marriage Act”) signed into law by President Clinton. Those are huge changes in far fewer than Harriet’s 92 years, and yet I understood what she was saying to me. I could have no idea how it felt to her. And yet, I kind of do.

Last month, January 2013, saw not only President Obama’s inauguration, but also the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in Confederate areas not under Union control to be “forever free.”

A couple of years later (1865) saw the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery (and the Civil War) with the political and moral battle compellingly told by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner in their current film, “Lincoln.” 

The anniversary and the Spielberg film shine a brighter light on Obama’s re-election, and a different light on this year’s reading of Parashat Mishpatim (“Rules”), which begins with God’s matter-of-fact instruction on the treatment of Hebrew slaves: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave …” (Exodus 21:2). Even though some slavery advocates in the early history of the United States used the Bible, and these verses in particular, to suggest that even God found slavery perfectly permissible, there are many verses also in Mishpatim that helped others to oppose slavery in any form. Perhaps the most compelling of these rules is one told twice in this Torah portion and 34 more times elsewhere in Torah, making it by far the most repeated value, rule or law in Torah: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger (v’atem ya-datem et-nefesh ha-ger), having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt [in Mishpatim]” (Exodus 23:9, also 22:20).

Here God gives us a commandment not just by telling us not to do something, but by reminding us that we know why not to do it: because you know what it feels like to be a stranger. 

God then proceeds to describe some other people not to oppress (the widow, the orphan, the poor). But like a wise teacher who knows the students might drift off if the lecturer drones on, God surprises us by posing a question in the midst of this list: “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? Bameh yishkahv?” (Exodus 22:25-26).

Imagine this scenario, God says, exactly as I describe it, and then answer my question. God is not just instructing us about what to do, but asking us why. By answering God’s direct question to us — “Bameh yishkahv? In what else shall he sleep?” — we are invited not simply to see another, to feel what another might feel, we are invited to a deeper understanding of ourselves — to find the innate morals and values and natural sympathy that exist within each of us. 

In order to “win a man to your cause,” Abraham Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”

“For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well,” said President Obama in his second inaugural address. 

“I love that man,” said Harriet.


Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.