There is a special Jewish law for goodbyes: “a person should take leave of another from involvement in a matter of Jewish law” (Berakhot 31b). In other words, part ways from one another with words of torah so that remembering the person reminds you of that torah, and remembering that torah reminds you of the person.
This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, literally means “laws” or “statutes,” so it is a fitting week to say goodbye to you as a spiritual counselor and rabbi of Beit T’Shuvah.
Mishpatim begins: “These are the rules that you shall set before them” (Shemot 21:1) and continues on to a series of laws about how we ought to behave towards one another. The laws start not with physical injury or with property damage, but with something more personal to the Israelites than any other topic: slavery.
When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment (Shemot 21:2).
Why begin with slavery? Because these laws are personal. They are not some esoteric philosophy of right action, and they’re not some distant authority telling us what to do. They are an experience that the Israelites, and we people in recovery, know personally. We know how to be slaves, even intergenerational slaves, to some false god. What we don’t know is how to be free.
These laws are here to teach us how to act as free people. And this very first law teaches us not to turn around and return to Egypt – not to re-enslave ourselves or to enslave someone else because “this is just how the world works.” This first law says something about slavery never imagined in Egypt. It says: a slave is a human being. And that “this is just how the world works” is nothing but an excuse for bad behavior.
How often we use some version of that phrase to excuse our behaviors! “This is just how it is!” Or “This is just how I am!” “I’ve always been like this!” “I didn’t have a choice!”
The Torah teaches us that unending, intergenerational slavery is how things were, but you, Israelites, you, people in recovery, you can do things differently. You have a choice. You can take what you’ve learned from your own slavery to make better not only your own life, but also the culture of community – and even the world.
Ultimately, it is up to you. When the Torah says that these laws are placed “before them,” it means that the law – this better way of living – is placed before each of us, and then we decide what to do. We decide whether we want to live in old and destructive and dehumanizing patterns of enslaved behavior, or whether we want to follow these laws that value our own and everyone’s freedom.
This choice to do better – or not – is our freedom. This is our power. And these laws are showing us how to use that power skillfully. Audre Lorde taught in her speech at the 1983 March on Washington:
Your power is relative, but it is real. And if you do not learn to use it, it will be used, against you, and me, and our children. Change did not begin with you, and it will not end with you, but what you do with your life is an absolutely vital piece of that chain.
If you do not learn to use your power skillfully, not only will someone else use your power against you, but you will use your power against you. If you do not learn to use your power – the power of choosing to do better – you will destroy yourself and allow others to destroy you. And you will set up the next generation to do the same.
This is what it means to be free: to know your power and to use it well –
for your own sake,
for the sake of the people around you,
and for the sake of the people in the generations after you.
My dear friends, I have learned so much about my power and responsibility while serving as a rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah. Sometimes, I have used it unwisely, though over time, I have become more skillful. This is my journey towards freedom, and it is very much bound up in yours.
It is customary to end the study of a tractate of Talmud with the Hadran prayer. Today, I offer it to you.
As with the Talmud, so with one another:
We will return to you and you will return to us.
Our mind is on you, and your mind is on us.
We will not forget you, and you will not forget us –
not in this world
and not in the world to come.
My hope is that you will draw from what we’ve learned together to use your Divinely given power well. Let us use our power and choose to walk together in the light of the Divine One! I will continue to do the same, both in this phase of life and in whatever comes next.