Sometimes were up, sometimes were down, but were always holy


Exodus 21:1-24:18

Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26

Our parshah is full of “short” laws, whose main concern is to make sure that the balance of power in society is spread justly. Though we do not like to admit it, even now there are those who have more and those who have less power, and thus more or less control over their lives in our society.

have more and those who have less power, and thus more or less control over their lives in our society.

In particular, the power base in biblical times was centered around men, land and commodities. Those who were not part of the central structure relied upon it for support, and gave (or not) of their own resources to assist in the maintenance of the household.

To look at the spiritual nature of these laws, I want to remind us that the Torah is well aware of the odd balance between power and vulnerability: the woman who loses a fetus when pushed in a brawl, the slave who is forced to choose between his freedom and his family, the uncared-for female taken as a slave, the widow and orphan whose family does not look after their economic needs.

What it says is that we are all vulnerable (though some more than others), and we do not know when we might shift from one sort of status in society to another. A slave who was forced to sell himself can be freed to go on to start a new life, a widow can remarry or have successful grown sons, a person whose life is blighted by a mishap can find a place of refuge.

The Torah recognizes that change happens. It emphasizes our spiritual and economic imperative to take care of those for whom the twist of fortune and life circumstances has been hard. It embeds the notion of decency; for instance, you must help to unload an animal in distress, even if it makes you late to work.

There are checks at every level — your return of a cloak before nightfall, even if the person has not completed their work, because we need warmth at night, emphasizes the humane act above the misuse of power. And as these commandments come from the Divine lips, so they have greater weight.

At the end of our parshah (Chapter 24), “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, ‘All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!’ ” After writing it all down, making a pact sacrifice of blood, then reading the document to them, they say again, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!” This time, the word “faithful” shows up, and in that moment, Moses dashes the blood over the people, not the altar.

Suddenly, we became the holy location, where the desire of the Divine for sacred community and the wish of the people for Divine connection unite under the protective wings of the cherubim.

The people become the foundation of God in this world. And in doing so, they all, men and women both, are marked with the blood of the covenant.

This covenant is based on faith, on love and on trust, not a blind following of what seems right, or a gratitude based on the acquisition of freedom, but a true meeting of parties who understand the nature of the holy pact that they are joining.

At the end of the text, we find another sighting of God, this time accomplished not by the entire people as at the Sea of Reeds, but by the leaders — Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 elders of Israel — whose power in the community will lead them to guide others along the sacred ways. In coming as representatives of the faithful, they are able to transcend their own humanity and enjoy the great glory of the Divine presence.

So may we always use our leadership wisely, and remember that in the case where we might lose power, we are also opening the way to the possibility of heavenly grace.

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo is the spiritual leader of Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.