Watching Out for the Ox That Gores

In this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim we continue the theme of last week’s: the revelation at Sinai. Having journeyed out of Egyptian slavery, the Israelites are now at Mount Sinai where Moses is to receive the laws. Mishpatim means “laws” and the portion is a collection of different laws and practices that we are to follow, some ethical, and some ritual.

This is in many ways the final stage of the Exodus. Having been enslaved for generations, the Israelites had become accustomed to one way of being—they were a society whose lives were controlled by others. Freedom now is not just the liberation from the chains of bondage, it is the ability to form a new society to maintain and perpetuate that freedom. That is the meaning of Sinai—a new covenant, a new set of guidelines that will govern the people in the creation of a new society.

Many aspects of this new society is rooted in the past experience of the Israelites. This portion contains the oft-repeated, important dictum “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the biblical version of “never forget”—our experience in the past must inform our present and future behavior. We are to be ever mindful of where oppression exists in our world, and strive to combat it. It is a fundamental Jewish ethic. (And one, in this day and age, especially important to recall.)

Another ethic can be found in the passage of “the goring ox:”

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman—the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:28-29)

In other words, if your ox gores someone to death, you are not liable for damages. But if you knew your ox was in the habit of goring, and it then gores someone to death, then you are liable. And, since the Torah proscribes capital punishment, the owner of the ox is put to death. It is as if you were directly responsible for the murder.

It seems like a harsh punishment, especially for something one’s animal did. For those of us who have pets or spend time around animals, no matter how domesticated animals are, their behavior can at times be unpredictable. I have the dog and cat scratches to prove it.

But there is an understanding in the text to which we need to pay heed. In the Torah text, the understanding of the scenario in this case is that the ox owner knew that the ox was a threat to others, yet did not do anything to mitigate that threat: “its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it.” That is why the liability rests with the owner. Not because they had the bad luck to have their ox act like an ox, but because they knew this was a possibility and did nothing to prevent potential harm.

The Torah here is giving us an important lesson in legal liability, for one, but also in general responsibility. For if we know of a potentially dangerous situation, action or actor and do nothing to prevent it, then we are responsible for any harm that comes from it. Things are going to happen, of course, the idea of having complete control is an illusion. But we do have the power to mitigate harm, to resist damaging powers, to counter threats.

We can apply this to the individual realm, and we can apply it to the communal realm as well. As the modern theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, when it comes to issues of communal justice, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” We may not cause harm ourselves, but if we know of harm being done, we are responsible to seek to stop it. The first step is to educate ourselves, the second is to act on that knowledge.

The law of the goring ox provides a corollary to the famous dictum about not oppressing the stranger. For in connecting the text to our present day, one question we must ask ourselves is, “who is the stranger who needs to be saved from oppression?”

And at the same time, another question we must ask ourselves is, “what are the dangerous oxen that need to be kept at bay?”

Noah and Small Injustices

This Shabbat we turned to the story of Noah, and small injustices.

The story of Noah and the flood is perhaps known to us. It is a story that is told to us as children and a story that is a part of the popular imagination. (And recently was a major motion picture.) God, dissatisfied with the world that was created, decides to destroy the world’s inhabitants by flood. Noah is chosen to be the savior of humanity (and animal life) when he is called by God and instructed to build an ark to house him and his family, along with representatives of all the world’s animal species. The floods come, Noah is saved, and once the waters subside all leave the ark to begin the world anew.

Its an extreme story, one that is also not exclusive to Jewish teachings. There is the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example. There was perhaps some ancient catastrophic natural event that led different cultures to develop folklore of a flood story, a fact which makes the story that much more powerful because of its universality. But the key to reading and understanding this story is not to see it as a record of a worldwide catastrophe (although it is hard these days to read the story without thinking of sea level rise caused by global climate change), but to see it as a story of humanity. What are the values present in the story that we as humans are meant to understand?noah wickedness

To think of that question, we turn to God’s reasoning. In the Torah story, the flood was not a random event, but a response. God was responding to the condition of humanity—a condition of evil, a condition of violence. “God saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised was nothing but evil all the time. And God regretted having created humans on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.” (Genesis 6:5-6)

But what, exactly, was the “wickedness” and “evil” that is spoken of? This story comes on the heels of the story of Creation, which ends with the first murder. So perhaps that murder and neglect for human life is what is being described. A midrash, however, comes to teach otherwise:

This is what the people of the age of the Flood used to do: when a person brought out a basket full of beans for sale, another would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth [a minimal amount, too small for legal action], and then everyone would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth, so that the seller had no legal remedy. (Bereshit Rabbah 31:5)

Each person only stole a small amount of beans, but when many people steal a small amount, then all the beans are gone. In other words, It was not the great injustices that led to the destruction of the world, but the small ones. A steady stream of small injustices build to such a crescendo that required a complete destruction and restarting of life on earth.

In recent days we have witnessed an increase in violence in Israel, with seemingly random attacks on Israeli civilians. What is striking to me is the “smallness” of these attacks. During the last intifada, when I lived in Jerusalem for a year as part of my rabbinical studies, the fear was bombings, which would kill numerous people at once. Now the attacks are that much smaller—stabbings in the street, cars driven into crowds. But the smaller attacks join into a larger wave of violence, which must be condemned.

These attacks are carried out in a context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the general absence of peace, which is perhaps defined by many small injustices. As Israelis are attacked, we must not deny the small injustices that are carried out every day against Palestinians, who live under an ever-growing occupation, the constant threat and perpetration of violence, the need to negotiate checkpoints and who are generally not in control of their lives.

In our country, the idea of “small injustices” also relates to our conversations around race and privilege. While we note the wave of African American deaths at the hands of white police, we also need to take into account the small injustices faced every day by people of color, who are denied access, who are routinely stopped in their cars, who are watched in stores and who are perceived as a threat while walking down the street.

And as Jews in America we experience small injustices as well. Recently I was asked about the presence of anti-Semitism locally, and while I noted that we haven’t faced any major overt incidents recently, the scheduling conflicts, ignorance of Jewish calendars and customs, and indifference or hostility towards Jewish approaches remind us of our minority status and are just as wounding.

Many of the ills that plague us are defined by small injustices.

But while we speak of small injustices, we really know that small injustices, carried out by many, are both symptoms of and create great injustices. This is the lesson of the midrash on Noah. Small injustices aggregate, they condition societies to hate and hurt the other, they create societies that are, in the words of the Torah, “evil.” Another flood will not come to destroy humanity, that is God’s promise. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing it ourselves.

As we read Noah this year, we take to heart the beginning of the story. We condemn the small injustices.

We condemn violence.

We condemn wickedness.

We condemn evil.

We condemn violence.

We condemn oppression.

Rather, we pray for justice, and we pray for peace.

And we pray to avoid the Flood.

This Sunday, I am Fasting for Black Churches

This Sunday is the observance of the 17th of Tammuz. More than just a date on the calendar, it is a minor fast day in the Jewish tradition. [N.B.: Sunday is actually the 18th, but because the 17th falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed one day.]

The day marks the beginning of a three week period of mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), a day set aside to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Observed by mourning, fasting and abstinence, Tisha B’Av is a day to focus on the themes of destruction, collective loss and communal strife.

The 17th of Tammuz introduces these themes. While the Ninth of Av marks the ultimate destruction of the Temple, the 17th of Tammuz marks the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem that ultimately led to that destruction. Once that line of defense was broken, it was only a matter of time until the loss was complete; once the walls fell, the Temple’s fall was inevitable. So while Tisha B’Av is the major day of mourning, the three week period beginning Sunday is itself a period of mourning.

The 17th of Tammuz is called a minor fast day because it is a sunrise to sunset fast, unlike the major fast days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) which are sundown to sundown fasts. But the designation of “minor” could also describe its place in the consciousness of contemporary Jews. The day itself, much less the fast, is not widely observed.

And I will admit I too more honor the 17th of Tammuz in the breach rather than the observance (especially on those years that it falls on my birthday.) But lately it has taken on new meaning for me. Just as the fast on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy inward on our own sins so that we are able to make atonement, so too do the fast days of the three weeks give us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy outward on our communal sins so that we are able to make atonement.

And with that intention in mind, as we face the current news, this year on the 17th of Tammuz I am fasting for black

photo by Davie Hinshaw/AP
photo by Davie Hinshaw/AP

churches. This year, in light of the shootings at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston which took nine lives, I am fasting for racially motivated violence in our country. This year, in light of the series of church arsons over the past few weeks, I am fasting to acknowledge the communal sin of racial violence and injustice which continue to this day.

On this 17th of Tammuz, we Jews are mindful that there is no greater communal violation than the violation of sacred space. And as the walls of ancient Jerusalem were once violated, and now the walls of the contemporary black church are being violated.

Fasting is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is an act that should motivate us to act. This morning I was on a conference call with over 400 faith leaders from many denominations, sponsored by Showing Up for Racial Justice, to talk about white solidarity in response to the violence directed towards black churches. It was an inspiring call to stand up and show up, to share resources and work together.

Fasting for churches this Sunday is not an official call to action, it is my personal kavannah (intention). I intend to do something initially practical, and donate the money I would have spent on food to a fund to help rebuild churches. But more than that, this fast will serve as another reminder and motivation for me that we have much work to do to rebuild that which has been, and continues to be, knocked down.

Listening to Jeremiah in Charleston

Yesterday was quite a day.

Yesterday was an amazing spiritual confluence: in the Jewish calendar it was Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, the first day of the month of Tammuz. For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan began. And Pope Francis issued a major encyclical on the environment, which hopefully promises to change the way we address climate change.

And we woke up to news that the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC—an African American church deeply rooted in Emanuel_African_Methodist_Episcopal_(AME)_Churchhistory—was the site of a horrible racist attack that resulted in the shooting death of nine people, including the pastor (who was also a state senator).

At time in which we are deeply confronting the history of institutionalized racism and privilege—from police shootings (including the one in Olympia) to the identity adoption of Rachel Dozelal—we are confronted with this particular act of terror, this particular act of violence based in hatred.

I shared this on Facebook yesterday morning:

Today: Rosh Hodesh (new moon) of Tammuz, the beginning of Ramadan, the Pope released an encyclical on the environment, and news of a tragic shooting at a black church in Charleston. May we have the strength to overcome our fears and hatreds, and clarity of vision to put aside violence and embrace hope and peace.

This shooting struck a particularly deep chord because of the time and place: it took place during a bible study at church. The shooter apparently had joined the group an hour before he began shooting—he was thus welcomed and included in a sacred space at a sacred time. The church—meant to be a place of safety and sanctuary (in the many meanings of the term)—was violated.

[As a Jew I felt a particular sickness at this act, because of the time and place. Jews are a historically persecuted minority, and we in our sacred spaces have wrestled with trying to walk the fine line between openness and safety. More than one person has expressed to me a bit of caution, of the need to look over ones shoulder, when gathering for services or at the Temple. Indeed, just last week someone walked into the sanctuary during Erev Shabbat and loudly disrupted services, yelling, “I need to talk to the pastor!” In this case it wasn’t a violent episode, I was able to talk to her to ascertain her needs, but it was a reminder nonetheless of our vulnerability at times.]

Because of this violation of sacred space, it felt like a sacred response was needed. A few colleagues and I, with the help of Interfaith Works, hastily arranged a vigil in Sylvester Park yesterday at 5:00 p.m. It was a time for being together in grief and to renew our commitment to peace and justice. We prayed, we sang, we read the names of the dead and we offered words of Scripture. We came together as victims and allies to mark this one tragedy and locate ourselves within the larger narrative of violence and racism in our country.

It was a powerful gathering. My Episcopalian colleague the Rev. George McDonnell shared this wonderful litany she wrote. And to honor the fact that the shooting victims were engaged in sacred text study at the time of their deaths, I offered a short passage of Scripture.

With the new month of Tammuz which we entered into yesterday comes a period of mourning in the Jewish tradition. The 17th of the month is a minor fast day which begins a three-week period which leads to a major fast day, Tisha B’Av. It is on that day that we mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Through noting this historic event, we turn our attention to the themes of communal disruption, baseless hatred and disunity in the community—all reasons given by our Sages for the Temple’s fall. In other words, the physical destruction of a communal institution is a symbol for the inner failure of community.

But, our Sages also sought to remind us that hope can rise from the ashes. As a Scriptural reading for Tisha B’Av, they assigned the prophet Jeremiah concluding with these verses, which are also appropriate for this time:

Thus says God: Let not the wise glory in their wisdom, neither let the mighty glory in their might, Let not the rich glory in their riches; But let them glory in this, that they understand, and know Me, That I am the God who acts with lovingkindess, justice, and righteousness in the world; for in these things I delight, says God. (Jeremiah 9:22-3)

The work continues. Let us all come to a place in which we can bring about lovingkindness, justice and righteousness in our world, so that all peoples can delight.