Author Archives: Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

About Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.

Letting Our People Go

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After the Ten Commandments, Parashat Mishpatim seems like a letdown. One week we read of God’s thundering voice, of mountains ablaze and trembling listeners, of the fundamental laws of the Torah. The next, it’s the most everyday of worlds–donkeys and sheep, lost objects and paid guardians, fistfights and insulted parents.

But we should read Mishpatim more carefully, because it’s here that we learn what God really meant by making these words the prologue to the Ten Commandments: I am Adonai your God, the one who brought you out from the land of Egypt, the house of slaves. By looking at two sets of laws which structure this parashah, we can uncover what it means for us to live our everyday lives with the awareness of former slaves.

Laws on Slavery

The very first law in Mishpatim seems at first glance to be built on the opposite idea. It begins: "When you buy a Hebrew slave…" Stop right there!–how can the Israelites, so fresh out of Egypt, be buying each other as slaves?

To answer the question we have to continue reading. "Six years he shall work, and in the seventh you shalllet him go, free, without payment." A couple of things catch our attention. One is surely the numbers, six and seven, which remind us of the weekly cycle of work and rest characteristic of free people. The other is most apparent in Hebrew. The word "y’shalchenu, he shall let him go," is built from the same root as Moses’ famous demand of Pharaoh, uttered in God’s name: "Shalach et ami, Let My people go!"

We are being told here that the act of freeing a personal slave is really the same as God’s act of freeing an entire nation from slavery. And the parallel builds: "But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master…I do not wish to go free,’ his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door [or the doorpost; mezuzah, in Hebrew] and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl–and he shall then remain his slave for life."

My teacher Rabbi Ed Greenstein explains that if you pierce an ear at the doorpost, what is left behind is a spot of blood. That detail completes the parallel between the slave owner in Israel and the Blessed Holy One in Egypt. The master who wishes to free his slave recreates the scene of the last night in Egypt. There, the slaves performed their first act as free people, defying the Egyptians by smearing blood on their doorposts from the sacrifice of a lamb, an animal sacred to the oppressors. In Mishpatim, by contrast, the master in effect says to the slave:"I want you free. You could walk out this door into freedom. If you don’t, it’s not because I didn’t try, not because I held you back, not because I desired to oppress you."

This law, in the end, is not really about permission to keep slaves. In its historical time, the Torah presumed a society where there were slaves, who had sold themselves because of debts or poverty. The law emphasizes instead the freeing. The very first thing these former slaves are being told is not to become like their Egyptian oppressors. They are being told to free their slaves–not only to offer freedom, but to sing it loud, to pull out all the stops, even to the point of creating a mini-drama about oppression and freedom.

Lessons Are Useful Today

The lesson is the same for our time and our society. We do not own slaves anymore, but as a society we tolerate oppression and participate in it. We tolerate a two-tiered society, where some have access to education and encouragement, to wealth and the means to make it, and others far less so. We tolerate the attitudes that let this continue–the lazy stereotypes about people of different colors and about "the poor," the lazy fatalist feeling that there are no real solutions. This is, in our time, what it means to buy and keep a slave of our own people.

The Torah commands us, living today, to free the oppressed around us. To set a limit to the time we are willing to tolerate the inequities and injustices before we rid ourselves of slavery. The first law set down by the God who brought us out of slavery is to go back, split the sea, and rescue those for whom life among us is still life in Egypt.

The law of the Hebrew slave freed in the seventh year begins the law code of Mishpatim. The code ends with a final series of laws, and the laws that open that this final section each evoke and extend one aspect of the law of the slave. "Do not oppress the stranger–because you know what it is like to be a slave. Six years you shall sow the land and gather its produce, but in the seventh you shall let it rest–so that your wealth belongs for one year to the needy."

And finally, "six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor." It is significant that Shabbat, the command to rest each week in celebration of our own freedom, is at the end of the list. Only when the strangers are welcome does our freedom have any meaning. Only when the hungry are fed does Shabbat, the pinnacle of Jewish spiritual life, have any significance.

And it works the other way, too–Shabbat is a daylong meditation on the responsibilities of free people in a society not yet rid of the suffering made by human beings. We must enter each new week like the master in Mishpatim, unsatisfied to see that suffering continues, blood on the door but the people still trapped inside.

The Blessed Holy One went first–"I am Adonai your God, the One who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slaves." The laws of Mishpatim teach us to go next, to keep on going, to be like God, so that we too can say that we have brought every last person out of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.

Creating an Experience of the All of You

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I can remember exactly where I was sitting in the college library when I first understood philosophically why every person in the human race was deserving of equal concern–my concern. The book I was reading, for a course called "Justice," was Immanuel Kant‘s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals–not exactly a poetic read. Maybe that’s why I had walked clear across campus to the farthest library to seek out a quiet corner by a window where I could read the dense sentences without distraction.

Kant’s essay turned out to be the most straightforward statement and "proof" I had ever seen of the moral equality of everyone as "an end in himself." For the first time I felt a strong intellectual foundation for the beliefs and values I had absorbed growing up.

It wasn’t too long before I was deflated by the discussion section leader, who noted that on a sinking boat, even people who loved Kant would probably save a family member first. So first term, freshman year, the issue was framed for me: the philosophical commitment to all people anywhere versus the emotional commitment to familiar people–family and community. It is a tension at the root of democratic theory and a psychological test for everyone involved in social action.

The Solution

Through the modern age, those who have read Deuteronomy through the lens of political action have often cited the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim as a solution to this tension. Speaking in front of the entire nation of Israel, Moses declares (in verses 29:9-11 and 13-14):

"You are standing, all of you, before Adonai your God–your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officials, every person in Israel; your wives, your children, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water–so that you may pass into the covenant of Adonai your God…and not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with he who is present, standing here with us today before Adonai our God, and with him who is not here with us today."

Though Moses names every class and subgroup within the community, he simultaneously invites his audience to let go of the labels and the social segregation they represent. Moses encounters people with little personal experience of being together as more than a community of convenience. These people didn’t experience and shape liberation together, or affirm God’s commands "with one voice," or agree to a covenant for their society.

Moses gathers this new generation, bids them to look around at everyone else, and feel a shared commitment to the existing covenant. And he speaks to us, readers in future generations, asking us to imagine ourselves there, standing with everyone who has lived or will live.

To us, reflecting on our contemporary social contract, Moses might say: Imagine yourself with all the people you see every day. Not the usual way, in stores and offices and homes, but in one crowd. As you mill around, get a new look, a good look, at everyone. Stop and talk to the people around you; strike up a conversation with a woodcutter, a CEO, and a congresswoman. Think of how certain words would sound if you were all hearing those words together: "We hold these truths to be self-evident…"

That would be a grand way to get around my freshman dilemma. Moses’ strategy is to make us feel connected to all others, seen and unseen, even as we attach our minds to a universal covenant.

Recommitting the Social Contract

In our society, we don’t have occasions to get together and recommit to the social contract in its loftiest form. In school, we learn about various founding covenantal moments–the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention; Seneca Falls and the March on Washington if we’re lucky. But it is the rare teacher who can write us a Deuteronomy on those moments to be read by the new generation.

I have a modest proposal, and it starts in high schools. The closest thing we have to Nitzavim is the junior year course in American history. One adult, twenty or more teenagers, and a textbook. What we ought to do is expand that list. When young people learn about covenantal moments in American history, they should be joined by people from the wide community. The best textbooks and source readers try to do this when they draw on new trends in social history; they are the first drafts of our modern Deuteronomy.

High school graduation, too, should not be a ritual confined to students, their families, educators, and a few dignitaries. No, the ritual should be covenantal–the welcome of a new group of people by a crowd of woodcutters and water-carriers, elders and little kids, CEOs and congresswomen.

"You are standing…all of you," says Moses. We need to create some experience of the "all of you," to be sustained by the imagination. Otherwise, the commitment to others that generates social change will be something the new generation only hears about, while they read alone in the corner of the library. 

Carrying On After The Golden Age

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It’s all coming to an end. That must have been Jacob’s thought as his life and the book of Genesis drew to a close. In Egypt, far from the land of God’s promises. Wondering about his children and their future. Would they preserve the covenant passed down since his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah? Which of his children could be the one who would take hold of the torch? Jacob knew very well that with his children, things would now be different–not Joseph, not Reuben, not Judah, none of them individually would be in their generation what Jacob had been in his–the one.

Yearning for Idealism

A golden age was coming to an end, and all Jacob knew for certain was that the future of a unique set of values and principles would be entrusted to the likes of Menasheh and Ephraim, his very Egyptian grandchildren, whom he was about to bless. 

I have often felt as though I missed the golden age of civil rights and social justice in America. I was born too late to march in Washington or Selma, never heard Dr. King speak in person. I arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary years after Heschel had died. Sometimes, I imagine myself as a college student deciding to head to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. At least, that’s how I like to see myself, risking my life for ideals in a struggle where the right side won and it’s there in the history books for all to see.

Where is today’s Freedom Summer? Where would I go to sign up for the cause that will go down in history? What could I do today as dramatic and life-threatening as Mississippi?

A Plethora of Causes

Today, there is no single cause to rivet our attention. Environment, globalization, voting rights, equality in education, economic justice, racism; each seems like its own world sometimes. There is no central address, and no moral and spiritual leader who is the voice for our age. Often the causes feel more like organizations than ideals sparkling in purity.

We live after the golden age, apparently. But rather than moan, we have to find a perspective, and a way to act.

Making Change

Jacob and his children teach me that the end of a golden age does not mean the end of ideals. Golden ages are important, and they inspire–but they are the exceptional periods. Genesis, after all, is only one of the five books of the Torah.

The rest of the Torah tells of life lived after the first great ones, and in fact much of the remaining story centers on a generation once more removed, not only from the patriarchs and matriarchs but from the Exodus from Egypt, the great liberation experience.

Are those generations inferior because they did not speak individually with God, leave family and homeland on a mere promise, or debate justice with God over Sodom? Of course not. They had in many ways a more difficult task: to make manifest principles that their ancestors had only just discovered.

Dramatic as first steps might be, the tenth and hundredth present their own challenges. Exciting as it may be to meet the charismatic founder, the true test of a vision is whether people in general can sustain it, propound it, and live it.

Furthering Jacob’s Vision

So I read my copy of "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and fantasize about decisions I might have made–but then I have to face the choices and opportunities here and now.

I choose to focus on doing something about poverty in America by engaging and training a new cadre of Jewish teens, and studying Torah with them as it relates to wealth, work, and community. I work hard at that, and from time to time create something new in the world, a path for young Jews to follow that enables them to see how they can change our society.

In and of itself, that won’t land me in the history books. But if in time the books tell the story of a new generation committed to service and social justice, I’ll recognize myself as one of the unnamed great-great-grandchildren of Jacob, an heir doing his part to further the visions of the golden age.

Reverberating Visions

There is an old story that traces the Sh’ma, arguably the most central Jewish prayer, to Jacob’s deathbed. According to the legend, Jacob let his children know his doubts and fears about whether they would continue in his path. They answered him: Sh’ma, Yisrael–"Listen, Israel," addressing Jacob by his God-given name–"the Lord our God, the Lord is One." We will carry on your vision, they say. And in the process, the first "ungolden" generation writes the words that have unified Jews ever since.

Maybe we, the children born too late to integrate the lunch counters, can be like Jacob’s children–the ones to write the powerful new words that make the visions of the past reverberate through all time to come.

Service And Community, In The Desert, Among Strangers

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“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing?… For I have known him in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.” So says God as God contemplates plans for the city of Sodom and its surroundings, whose reputation for evil and whose shrieks of corruption have become more than God can bear.

God knows that for Abraham and his descendents to become responsible for justice in the world, God must first apprentice Abraham, including him in a monumental decision about justice and human beings. (Abraham, of course, ends up challenging God to save the population of the cities if even ten righteous people can be found in the area.)

Justice & Familial Struggle

Parshat Vayera places this passage in the middle of a flow of events that somehow link the issue of justice in the wider world to Abraham’s own family struggles. As the Torah reading begins, Abraham sprints from the door of his desert tent toward three travelers, who turn out to be divine messengers come to announce the birth of a son to elderly Sarah and Abraham.

As the reading ends, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are driven out, because of Sarah’s jealousy and her urge to secure the inheritance of her own son Isaac. God saves the cast-out boy and his mother. God then tests Abraham, asking him to give up his remaining son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. Yet again God intercedes and saves the boy.

This interplay between the discussion about Sodom and the struggle for peace and justice in Abraham’s household resist an easy lesson.

Toward the end of this week’s reading is an episode most of us don’t remember. Between the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac, Abraham is approached by Avimelech, king of the neighboring Philistines. Avimelech proposes a treaty, in recognition of past friendship. After the covenant is made official, the Torah relates that “Abraham planted an eshel-tree in Be’er Sheva, and there he called the name of Adonai, Eternal God. And Abraham lived in the land of the Philistines a long time.”

The peace treaty is jarring–it comes as Abraham’s own family seems to be collapsing, and stands in counterpoint to the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah. The rabbis of the midrash (rabbinic exegetical narrative) try to make sense of the episode, and their point of entry is, of all things, the tree.

In one midrash, two rabbis offer their views on what exactly the eshel was. One says: an orchard. The other says: an inn, a waystation for desert travelers. Either way, Abraham marks his new bond with the Philistines by getting involved with them, providing and sharing food. For Abraham, the alliance isn’t just with Avimelech, and it isn’t just an agreement to insure against future conflicts. It has to create a new relationship of hesed, of covenantal kindness, between two peoples, starting now.

Preserving Peace

Maybe Abraham was reflecting on his experience with Sodom. He had argued on their behalf, but from a comfortable distance–looking down into the valley from his home up in the hills. For all his talk of justice, he had done nothing to engage with the evil and corruption right in those cities. Here, Abraham decides to take seriously his own talk about justice, creating community right there in the desert, looking out for vulnerable travelers among the Philistines as well as his own people.

The rabbi who teaches that an eshel is an inn has to justify his creative translation. The three letters of the Hebrew word eshel, he says, each stand for an element of Abraham’s hospitality: aleph for “achilah,” eating; shin for “shtiya,” drinking, and lamed for “l’vaya,” accompanying travelers on their way.

“Then Abraham lived in the land of Philistines a long time.” Not in the cities he had settled in when God first brought him to Canaan, but in the land of the Philistines. Who knows how many strangers Abraham met, what he learned as he shared meals with them, what they taught him as he escorted them toward a safer journey.

If they thanked him, say the rabbis, he would respond: Do you think you have me to thank? Let us thank God together, for it is God’s food we are sharing. And, we might add: It is God who brought me to this land, who separated me from people so that I would have to figure out from the beginning how to order my relationships, how to sustain justice in my own home, which I realize is a place of ayn-shalom, no peace.

What is Abraham’s life, after all, but a twisting story about connection and disconnection? Leaving home, wandering the new land, leaving it in time of famine. Reaching out to travelers, speaking out for ten hypothetical innocents hidden in a culture of evil. In the middle of the desert, Abraham makes a tentative step, staking out a small parcel for peace and devotion to others with no expectations in return. None of them will be announcing miracles to Sarah or good fortune for their descendents. The eshel is a moment of pure service.

It is interesting that in one rabbinic legend, this is the time that Abraham sends messengers to check on Ishmael, and eventually to reunite the family–only for a time, of course, before the terrible challenge from God to offer his other son. But I like to think about that legend, and to imagine Abraham and Sarah with their children at the eshel in Be’er Sheva. Peace in the home, service to others. How to preserve that moment, they do not teach us–Torah forwards that challenge to us.


Tzedakah in the Bible

The Bible backed up its exhortations to assist the poor with laws and practices that gave poor people a claim to a share of society’s wealth.

In the Torah’s detailed code of law in Exodus, the very first law describes the case of the “Hebrew slave”—a man who has to sell himself into indentured servitude because of poverty or debt. The focal provision of the law is the obligation of the owner to release the slave at the end of six years. In Deuteronomy, the law is elaborated and revised–the owner must “pile him up” with food and flocks as he goes free. Together, the two statements of the law of the Hebrew slave set up a parallel between God’s treatment of Israel and Israel’s treatment of those in the community who are poor. God, who is identified at the beginning of the Ten Commandments as the One “Who brought you out… from the house of slaves,” defines Israel as the people who liberate their own debt-slaves and sustain them in their freedom.

Indeed, the Torah’s framework of assistance for the poor is built almost entirely on a series of imitations of God, in accord with the command “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Life on the land God has given is a covenantal partnership between Israel and God. God and Israel each participate in making the land productive and prosperous. Israel is expected to acknowledge God’s faithfulness by reserving a portion of that prosperity for the most vulnerable. The widow, the orphan, the temporary sojourner, the landless, the poor—they command God’s special attention and concern, according to the Torah, just as the people as a whole did in Egypt. Sustaining them is in some sense the only way the community of Israel can repay God for the blessing of bounty.

biblical charityIn its details, biblical law concerning assistance for the poor deals primarily with four situations: the harvest in the field, the threshing floor, loans, and indentured servitude. The laws reflect a tension between dealing with immediate need—“for the poor shall never cease from the land”—and the ideal of “there shall no needy among you.” Both statements, in fact, appear in the same chapter, Deuteronomy 15.