Haftarah Yitro from last week includes words so important they were made part of the service: “Holy, holy, holy! All the earth is filled with the presence of the Lord of Hosts.”
Or it could be, if we made room for that presence.
Making room for God is a task set for us by all of Jewish teaching, and it is one whose details are included in Parashat Mishpatim.
It is only a few weeks since we read that the children of Israel were freed from a Mitzraim (Egypt) of violence, hatred, and slavery. Yet here we have a parashah (Torah portion) in which the children of Israel have constructed a quarrelsome, hate-filled, violent world of Jewish slave owners. Many of the rules in Mishpatim tell us to respond to evil behavior with violent punishment, often with death. We may be repelled by what we read here and assume that is some long past time that says nothing about our world.
But if we think that, we need to pay more attention to the line of the birchot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, about opening the eyes of the blind. If we could only look at our own society as an outsider does, we would find equal levels of violence and oppression all around us. Where here can we find God’s presence?
We are looking in the wrong places if we think that all we need to do is open our eyes. Filling the earth with God’s presence means that we must take on the task of making space for it. To do that, we must reclaim that space inch by inch from pushing out evil conduct.
This is an enormous task, but it is a task that demands attention to small details. They offer the greatest opportunities for us to act.
One such opportunity comes after an order not to oppress widows and orphans. Ex.22:25-26 says that if you have taken your neighbor’s garment in pledge for a loan, you must return it to him before the sun sets. It says that the compassionae God will hear the cry of your cold, needy neighbor, but not you.
Mishpatim is full of injunctions which concern the society’s care for its strangers. The Torah orders us love the stranger or not oppress the stranger stranger thirty-six times. But in verses 25-26 the issue is closer at hand. It regards the treatment of our neighbors, the people we live with and see every day.
Even more blatant than blinding ourselves to the way we treat our neighbors is the fact that it is likely that we ourselves will be or leave widows and orphans and that misfortune could easily reduce us to having no more than the clothes on our backs. We know this on the one hand, and yet on the other hand, we cannot seem to open our eyes and open our hands. We know that misfortunes happen and that if they do that we will need kind treatment from a loving community. But then we compartmentalize all this, hardening our hearts and creating a world in which God’s mercy will not exist when we need it.
If we cannot be kind under these circumstances, then what hope is there that we can create any space for God’s presence to fill the world?
This should all be so easy, but it is not. These are obviously hard lessons to learn, for we are not told them only once. We are told them repeatedly. In Deuteronomy 24:15 we are told it is a sin not to pay the wages we owe our workers each day. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8 where we are commanded not to harden our hearts, not to be a Pharaoh, to our needy kinsmen. Heschel tells us:
Day after day we ask desperately—are we alone in this silent universe—of which we feel a part and in which we also feel like strangers?
So here we have God, constantly commanding us not to oppress strangers, and not to make ourselves strangers. If we are not to wall ourselves off, not to be strangers, then we must do the right thing for those who are closest to us, our neighbors, our family members, those who do our work. And yet year after year we constantly need these reminders.
There is no miracle that will change the sad state of our world. This is work that God alone cannot do. We must make space for God to enter and actively invite God in. Each small space where we create an opening is one where redemption can exist.
Ashrei, which means “happy”, tells us that God’s hand can be open. Just as God’s hand can be open, we can and must open our own hands.