Jesse Flash - Dvar Torah
Good Shabbos, everyone. When I found out that my parasha, Mishpatim, was about laws, I was like boring! Why couldn’t I have gotten one of the classic bible stories like Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Avraham and Sarai or Moses in the bulrushes? However, now that I’ve spent a year studying, reading and trying to understand my parasha, I’ve realised that the Torah isn't just stories but laws on how to live and thrive in society. In my parasha, Mishpatim, meaning laws, there is so much, and immediately from the beginning, it dives right in. There are oxen laws, and what to do if your ox has gored your neighbour, FYI, it’s your responsibility, and you must pay the medical bills. There’re laws about idolatry, lending money and capital punishment. For years I’ve loved reading books about fantasy, magic and Greek Gods and Goddesses, but I never thought there would be laws on magic and sorcery in my very own parasha. There are laws about open pits, bribes, lots of laws about slavery, destructive fires, kashrut and many, many others.
In the flow of the Torah, this comes after the Jewish people have been freed from slavery in the Exodus from Egypt. As a newly freed people, these laws were really about how to solve arguments and disputes, learn how to treat others and how to become a society. So, while laws about oxen aren’t really relevant to me here in Kenilworth 2023, here are some that are.
● One of these laws that spoke to me and is very relevant in our society today is how we treat the stranger. This law is clearly very important because it’s mentioned 36 times in the Torah. "You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I think the stranger doesn't only mean someone you don't know. This could be a person from another country, who doesn’t have the same resources as you. It is horrendous how South Africans have treated people from other countries just because they’re not South African. A stranger is also someone who isn’t like you. For example, someone who’s part of the LGBTQIA+ community and how in society they’re treated as other or strangers. Or it's even just the new person in your class who feels lonely and overwhelmed.
The stranger can be someone who is less fortunate than us and often society looks down on these people and ignores them. I’ve grown up in a house where we always greet the people begging on the side of the road and generally have peanuts to hand out to them, many of these people we know by name.
With this in mind, for my Batmitzvah Project, I decided that I wanted to read to orphans and help out at an orphanage. I wanted to share my love of reading and love of stories with children who don’t always get a bedtime story every night like I did. While most of the time was spent not reading, I got to know these great, bright kids with big personalities who were always nice to me and let me play with them and sing with them. This is something that I’d like to continue.
● Many of the laws in the parasha had a common theme of integrity. This is something very important to me. Verse 23 states ``You must not carry false rumours…” This can be online apps or websites dedicated to gossiping…or break time every day! Gossiping is often very tempting because it may not matter to you, and you can carry on with your day but words can cause huge harm. Whether you start a rumour or are the one who spreads it, you are equally responsible for hurting others. Another characteristic for having integrity is knowing when to admit you’re wrong and when to apologise.
● Even though the many ox laws didn’t interest me, a donkey one did. It’s about being the bigger person. “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it.” Even though one might not like the owner, one mustn’t let the animal suffer. The laws that we read aren’t only relating to human interactions, but animals as well. I like that the Torah keeps in mind the importance of treating innocent animals well. In our house our pets are a big part of our family and some of my favourite holidays and most incredible experiences were the ones at Addo Elephant Park or the Pilanesberg. Like being surrounded by a herd of elephants, or watching a pride of lions walk metres in front of you at sunrise and even cheetahs rolling in the long grass.
● What also stood out to me consistently while studying the texts is how everything, everything is from the man’s perspective, come on Torah, patriarchy, was so last century.
Not only is it from the men’s perspective, but the women also aren’t even given a voice or opinion, they’re merely just background characters, objects and used at the men’s disposal. There are strong, courageous, intelligent women who lead communities, stood up for what they believed in, killed the leader of the enemy army with a tent peg. Their choices and decisions were vital in those stories. I’m proud to have grown up in and belong to a community where all strangers, and people who traditionally didn't have a voice, do have a voice.
My torah portion, Mishpatim, after listing law after law after law, ends with an almost supernatural, Hollywood style moment of Moses going up the sapphire path in a cloud of fire to receive the 10 commandments and bring them down to the Jewish people. I stand here today as a Batmitzvah, a daughter of the commandments and a Jewish adult in the eyes of the community learning the laws. I'm responsible for my choices and their consequences. It’s now up to me to get a greater understanding of the vast branches of Judaism and see which ones are meaningful for me whether it be studying the laws or observing the festivals and Shabbat with my family and community, reading books by Jewish authors or just eating the wonderful delicacies of cheesecake, perogen and smoked salmon.
Whichever path I take, I know that my Judaism will always be important to me, and I hope that I will use my voice to encourage others, and treat others with kindness and respect and make a difference. Good Shabbos.