Parashat Mishpatim

Exodus Morality

Whether or not we know the suffering of the slaves, we are commanded to act as if we do.

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My synagogue has the privilege of guarding a Torah scroll that was used in a synagogue in the town of Uherske Hradiste in what is now the Czech Republic. This Shabbat, my community will say kaddish for the 300 Jews who lived near that synagogue in the early 1940s. We remember them every year at this time because it was in late January 1943 that they were moved in transports from a makeshift ghetto to the Terezin concentration camp. This is the closest we can come to a yahrzeit for them. In a certain way, we are their descendants and their survivors. As in our parashah, our shared memory of oppression leads to a moral dynamic and an imperative to act.  

But our tradition is not content simply to prohibit us from perpetrating oppression or atrocity. The moral dynamic imposed by our active remembering of both our slavery in Egypt and the Holocaust is reinforced and expanded in the mitzvah prohibiting us from "standing idly the blood of our neighbors (Leviticus 19:6)"--not only must we refrain from being perpetrators, we are prohibited from even being bystanders. It is not enough to refuse to enslave or kill--we must actively intervene when we see others committing these crimes.

The implication is that we are never again to allow the world to pretend it doesn't know about killings and atrocities. In Darfur, an estimated four million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. In Kenya, violence has erupted after the recent presidential elections. In Burma, oppression and atrocity continue.

We have a moral imperative to act, and that imperative is rooted in this week's parashah. We must continue to raise awareness about what is happening. We must refuse to hide behind expressions of neutrality, knowing that failure to take sides always benefits the oppressor. We must pressure our own governments to take the lead in helping refugees return to their homes and to heighten economic sanctions on the governments that are enacting or allowing atrocity. We have been the strangers in Egypt and in Uherske Hradiste. In Darfur, in Burma, in Kenya--we have a responsibility to protect.

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Carol Towarnicky

Carol Towarnicky is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.