Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hashem is Takin’ Care of Bizness


Parshat Mishpatim
Shmot 21:1-24:18
24 Shevat 5771 / Jan. 28 – 29, 2011

Hashem is Takin’ Care of Bizness
by Leana Jelen, MH Montgomery County, MD

This week’s parsha, mishpatim, is essentially a list of rules given to the Jews. Rather than a nice story about Moses hitting a rock or sailing the Nile in his basket note, God is giving, one after another a list of rules: BAM! (example 1). BAM! (example 2), one after another without elaboration. Now, later in the torah, in Bamidbar, the same rules are given in greater detail, but to understand the rules in this parsha, we use a combination of the sagely insights of the commentators and our brains.

Two verses that jumped out at me when learning with Zvi state:

יב. מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת מוֹת יוּמָת:

12. One who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.

יג. וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱ־לֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה:

13. But one who did not stalk [him], but God brought [it] about into his hand, I will make a place for you to which he shall flee.

So if someone murders someone accidentally, he can go to a safe place. This is widely understood to be referring to the Levite camp, or later, when the Jews live in Israel, the safe places are known as arei miklat or safe cities, also under Levite control. Someone who kills on purpose, on the other hand, is killed immediately, even if he is holding onto the altar; essentially, even if he has thrown himself on the altar and is crying hysterically, we peel him off and send him to the electric chair.

The first technicality critical to mention is that we are not exactly sure what type of accidental killing is meant. Often the word beshogeg is translated as accidentally, but this word actually has a meaning closer to “having been done without knowledge that is was wrong.” Everyone knows that murder is wrong, so in this case it might apply to an insanity case; one in which a mental impairment—be it something chronic like a mental illness, or something momentary like blacking out due to rage or a seizure—is the cause of the killing.

So here’s the scenario: Shmulke and Zalman are bickering over Zalman’s goat who is always in Shmulke’s daisy field eating up the flowers, and things get out of hand, Shmulke blacks out, comes to, Zalman and the goat are dead, and is holding his dagger. We let a guy like this just go and hang out with the priests for a while? It hardly seems fair at first glance. So let’s take a look and see what good old Rashi has to say.

Rashi picks up on the phrase וְהָאֱ־לֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ And the Lord forced his hand and proposes that Shmulke is actually an agent for Hashem’s plan , and goes even further to say that Zalman may have committed a crime worthy of the death penalty earlier in his life, and had not yet been punished for it.

Me: Um, hello? With all due respect, Rashi, why involve Shmulke at all? Why not just strike Zalman down with lightning if Hashem wants him to die?

Rashi: Well, maybe Shmulke, too, had committed a crime earlier in his life that had gone unpunished, and this forced murder evens things out.

Unfortunately, I’m still not satisfied, and it brings up the question of why do bad things happen to good people—hardly an issue I’m interested in facing. But why send Shmulke to hang out with the Levites? One answer is to quarantine them so that someone prone to murderous blackouts isn’t just mingling with regular society, and another reason is that the Levites were those responsible for the holy work of the temple, involving sacrifices and the daily spiritual needs of the general public. Being around such holy people could only be a positive influence on these people who needed to learn better self-control.

Finally, what is the duration of the sentence? Is there some kind of scale based on how accidental the murder really was? Do blackout murderers get 25 years, but schizophrenics who were just following “instructions” get 10? Interestingly, for all those sent to a city of refuge, the sentence ends when the current kohein gadol (high priest) dies. This is incredibly powerful and truly appropriate. For whatever God’s reason may have been, God decides that Zalman needs to die, and then God decides how long Shmulke needs to hide before he can reintegrate within the community.

Certainly this brings up the annoying “free-will vs. predetermination” conundrum, but for me it really is reassuring that God has a plan. It’s difficult to tell someone suffering the deepest of struggles that it will get better one day and that Hashem loves him, but certainly we can begin by integrating this on a smaller scale. I rode the metro all the way to Virginia, excited to be taking a West African dance class for the first time in nine months, walked 6 blocks in freezing cold, only to discover that the transit website had led me astray. The studio was in the opposite direction. I could have cursed the world and stomped around, but instead I found a nice coffee shop, plunked myself down, and wrote the dvar torah that was way overdue. God was telling me that West African Dance was not in the cards for me this week, but maybe next week.

There are small things I do in my everyday life to remind myself of this, and I personally try to start with the small things we often take for granted: I try to kiss the mezuzah when I enter a room to remind myself that God is present with me, even in my mundane activities. When I remember, I write ב"ה (for Baruch Hashem—thank God) at the top of papers (yes, even my grad school assignments), and when I exit the ladies room, I take a moment to think about how amazing it is that my body functions more or less the way it should and that if at any moment God should decide to stop paying attention, I would not be able to remain standing, even for a moment. The feeling that I am so finite and that I cannot understand the master plan is vast and overwhelming at times, but (and maybe this is just because I enjoy being taken care of) it’s comforting to know that something bigger, smarter, and better than I am is taking the reins and has my back.

Good Shabbos, fellow moishe house-niks! I love you all and can’t wait to meet each of you in person!

Please come visit us at our new location! We have plenty of space for sleepers, just give us a little notice and I’ll make you butternut squash pie.



(Moishe House MoCo)


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