In Parashat Mishpatim, God follows the gift of the Ten Commandments with a lengthy set of specific laws which cover violations from the most vicious to the less violent but nonetheless offensive. Treatment of Hebrew servants, slaves, widows and orphans, pregnant women, goring oxen, and other livestock are addressed meticulously.
Probably the most well-known words from the parasha whose name means “sentences” (in the context of civil and criminal legislation) include chapter 21, verses 22-25: 22. “And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24. eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25. burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
As generations have passed, we have continued to question the wisdom and legitimacy of laws, including all of the aforementioned sentences. Progress, whether technological, legal, or ethical, mandates that we revisit our codes and question the status quo. What is justice? How can we, as Jews, aspire to be “a light unto the nations” if we do not practice justice? How we can lead our own people, much less the rest of the world, unless we seek justice all of the time? And yet, even if we do pursue justice in response to suspected acts on the part of our leaders, what does the mere allegation or worse – the conviction – of criminal activity by our role models say about where we are headed?
Lately, these topics have come up frequently in discussions with students and colleagues at Hillel, specifically in regard to Israeli politicians. Thus, consider chapter 23, verses 2, 7, and 8: 2. “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt you bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice; and 7. Distance yourself from a false word, do not execute the innocent or the righteous, for I shall exonerate the wicked. 8. And thou shalt take no gift; for a gift blindeth them that have sight, and perverteth the words of the righteous.”
Rabbi Simcha Bunim, 18th century Chassidic leader, comments that the transgressions of falsehood and corruption are so abhorred by God, that not only are they prohibited, but we are even required to “distance” ourselves from their presence.
In recent years, hardly a day goes by without news of investigation into political corruption or, at best, unethical behavior, by members of the Knesset and other Israeli government authorities. The charges against Israel’s leaders range from sexual harassment to receiving bribes to giving multimillion-dollar tax breaks to companies.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself has been under investigation for more than a year over allegations of bribery and other financial irregularities related to the sale and lease of his home, and his involvement in the privatization of Bank Leumi. Certainly, the most serious criminal allegations have come against President Moshe Katzav, as the Attorney General declared just last month that he is prepared to charge Katzav with several counts of rape, sexual harassment, breach of trust, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, and fraud. In response, the president has launched a disastrous public-relations campaign and alienated some attorneys while refusing to resign from the presidency.
Let us merely mention that investigations into fraud and other financial corruption dogged the administrations of the previous three Israeli prime ministers, across party lines: Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, and Binyamin Netanyahu. So where does that leave us, and how do we treat the matter with students and colleagues who are growing to love Israel but now want to respect it as well? It is often said that although Theodor Herzl envisioned a normal Jewish state, because of his own life experiences, he neither yearned for nor anticipated that in such a state, both the police and the criminals would be dominated by Jews. Corruption is not a sign of normalcy, but rather, the result of conscious decisions by humans to violate laws in pursuit of personal gain. Manipulation of power is nothing new; it existed when the Israelites received the most basic laws from God, and it remains in our midst.
If we acknowledge that malicious drives do not skip over humans based upon religion or ethnicity, we stand a better chance of confronting and discouraging corruption, by Jew and gentile. Does Israel have more political corruption in 2007 than it did in past decades? Probably, but the most significant positive difference is that today, corruption in Israel is exposed more immediately and prosecuted more determinedly. There is no joy in media coverage of Israel that gives us a respite from criticism of foreign policy by reporting on politicians’ domestic crimes. Just as we strive to question the motives and actions of politicians and the courts in our country of residence, we should educate our students and ourselves about Israel by monitoring and questioning its political and judicial systems.
To love and to respect are not the same, as we are told in the previous parasha, Yitro. We are commanded to “honor” (respect) our father and mother, but we are not told to love either one. With successful connections to Israel for young Jews – through free trips, Hebrew hip-hop, Israeli cinema, and many other avenues – we are succeeding in developing a love for Israel, but we have much work to do in the way of respect. Love for Israel is the beginning, respect will come from further education and exposure to the good and the bad, passion and lifelong commitment will follow through deeper understanding.
Prepared by Sahar Oz, assistant director, Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Mishpatim at MyJewishLearning.com.