The perpetual cycle of seeing the bad only
Thoughts on parashat Mishpatim
The country is difficult when everything seems to be the simplest to everyone
The country is beautiful when everything seems bad to everyone
Marek Grechuta, Jeszcze pożyjemy / Yet we will live
Parashat Mishpatim is extraordinarily rich in laws, judgements and statutes governing every facet of human existence. Many laws and norms found in our sidra are specifications of the laws contained in the Decalogue, which is in the previous Torah portion. This comprehensive legislation covers relations between man and man, man and society, man and his enemy and even between man and animal or plant. And while some of them may appear out of date at first glance, some of them are timeless and unquestionably relevant also in today’s world:
And you shall be holy men to me: neither shall you eat any meat that is torn of beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs. Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to incline after a multitude to pervert justice: nor shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause. (Ex 22:30-23:1-3)
The first one, about not eating meat that is torn from an animal, is obvious to all of us. But I included it in the quotation above because for me they are logically a whole (and this whole is part of a larger whole). I believe that the essence of these words is the following: you shall be mindful and civilized, starting with what we eat and ending with our social behavior and political involvement. Not a lot of commentary is required to these words, that seem to be self-evident. But our parasha contains more wisdom regarding social life, and one of the most important of these is expressed in our parasha twice:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex 22:20)
Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Miżrayim. (Ex 23:9)
The idea to treat the stranger fairly / love him (because you were strangers in the land Egypt) is expressed in the Torah at least a dozen times. One might well ask why the Torah places so much emphasis on this. I believe that the answer is the following: The Torah is fully aware of the historical cycle of oppression happening between various nations and social groups, sees evil in it and therefore orders us not to act on the impulse of retaliation, in order to break this cycle.
This idea is extremely relevant today, especially because from Marx, throughout the twentieth century to the present day, it has become very popular to view history as an endless conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. Some thinkers and academics see this concept even as a key to understanding the entire human history. Not questioning the fact that the processes of reciprocal, perpetual oppression take place in human history, I strongly disagree that it is THE KEY to understand history and society. Furthermore, I believe that viewing history only through this lens is very simplistic. Why? Because people fundamentally cooperate and viewing history exclusively through the lens of perpetual oppression makes us overlook this positive process of cooperation which is the fundament of our civilization, civilizational development and the source of everything good that humanity brought to the world!
I understand why some people so strongly insist on viewing history and social affairs through the oppressor/oppressed lens: being particularly focused on what is still bad in our society is often a sign of great concern for the good of society. This idea is captured in the song by the Polish singer and poet, Marek Grechuta, which I quoted at the beginning: The country is beautiful when everything seems bad to everyone. But the problem is that it cuts both ways. Being completely one-sided and overly negative in perceiving the world and human affairs does a great psychological harm to us and our communities. Talking all the time about various groups fighting and oppressing each other makes us resentful and causes a desire for revenge to sprout in us. This leads people create various harmful concepts like the one of “good discrimination” (i.e. because people from one group historically oppressed another group of people it is now good and just to reverse the process and oppress the former oppressors, as a group). If we lose control over it and let these feelings escalate, it will only lead to violence. And this is exactly what the Torah wants to prevent us from doing, at the very beginning of this entire process! The essential part of it is forgiveness: if you want to be forgiven, you have to be able to forgive others, no matter what their identity is. The Torah teaches:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18)
The concept of breaking the cycle of perpetual, mutual oppression has the same goal as other laws in our parasha, including these quoted above: to raise us to a higher civilizational level. Thus, let us not be fooled by all sorts of concepts that question the wisdom of the Torah and let us continue in the process of social and moral self-improvement.