AWAKENING MISHPATIM: TORAH MUSSAR MINDFULNESS, 18TH SITTING

Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar MIndfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.

Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Mishpatim, we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.

We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)

We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:

Mishpatim is a Torah portion that is full of laws, however it is not a code of law as not all laws and areas of law are covered. There are also some truly progressive, ethical, upright laws present AND we cannot deal with all of them in one teaching today. What interests our Mussar Mindfulness practice today are the “laws” or commandments that were not necessary dealt with in a court of law. Rather, they were and are enforced only through the conscience of a human being and perhaps by societal pressure.

The text and these laws presuppose the י.ד.ע, the knowing and the fearing of God (the fearing of sinning against that God, of what they know to be upright, Justice, and good), the developed internal moral compass. They also presuppose the ז.כ.ר, the remembering that leads to action to live out those values of integrity. And if you recall, we were introduced to this concept of י.ד.ע, knowing God by our courageous midwives in Parashat Shemot, who refused to murder the Hebrew baby boys when ordered by Paro because they feared God, because they knew God. And it was that very experience of being there in Egypt at that time of the institution of slavery that informed these midwives how to behave. So too here.

Let’s delve into this more: we are told that we were Gerim, Strangers, in Egypt, therefore, we are to remember (ז.כ.ר) this degrading experience so that we will not cause harm to other strangers and other disadvantaged populations, like the widow, orphan, the poor, and the stranger. So that we will relieve their suffering. Knowing God has led to knowing the stranger: knowing their experience, knowing their heart because of our shared oppression. To cause them harm is to cause harm to ourselves. God will not tolerate this. Neither should we.

These laws are expressions of Divine will. The gift that God has given us is this internal moral compass that aligns us with this Divine will, that when unfettered by obstacles, hindrances and trauma, we manifest imitatio Dei, imitation of God: Holiness in action, an applied Mindfulness. It is God’s simultaneous gracious act of imago Dei, creating us in God’s image or likeness, that also enables us to imitate God, by living out our Torah values: our internal moral compass of knowing God, of knowing Right and Wrong and acting on that knowledge.

Let’s look at the laws legislating the institution of slavery in Israelite society. If you are anything like my childhood-self, you will find yourself screaming inside at this moment, saying:

What?!?! Slaves?!? We just left slavery. Why on earth are we dealing with slave laws and why are we having slaves!”

Our reactive voice! The side of us that is dealing with attachment and aversion to this text!

What is positive about having awareness of and allowing our reaction is that we can investigate and come to non-identify and learn that slavery was an established institution back in the ancient Near Eastern-Arab-Asian-African society of the Torah. Even if a people comes out of slavery, there are instances where a person will commit an act that will cause them to enter a defined period of slavery. Slavery as we understand from the Atlantic slave trade and kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, Native Americans and other folk is not the same kind of slavery that we are witnessing in Parashat Mishpatim. There are ten laws that legislate slavery in this portion.

Despite all of this knowledge, let us acknowledge that learning about an Israelite slave in Chapter 21:2 can not only cause discomfort but also deep sadness. This is someone who was just freed from slavery by God to serve God and now this person is enslaved again by a fellow Israelite. And we are not the only ones to pick up this “wrongness”. Honor that our moral compass is speaking. It is also for our ancestor, master rabbinic commentator, Rashi. Let’s learn.

The case before us is a Hebrew slave who has finished his six years of service and is about to be let free. However, he wishes to remain a slave in his master’s household. The reasons conjectured are that the slave has a wife and children in the master’s house, and since those people are owned by the master, the slave wishes to stay because of them because they cannot exit the slavery with him. In order to accept this status change from temporary slave to permanent slave, God in the Torah commands that the owner must puncture a hole in his slave’s ear at the local court of law in front of witnesses.

Rashi in his sensitive brillance teaches:

(Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 21:6:3; Kiddushin 22b). Rabbi Simeon interpreted this verse like a jewel (i. e. giving it an ethical signification): In what respect are door and doorpost different from all other objects in the house that they should be singled out for this purpose? God, in effect, said: door and doorpost that were eye-witnesses in Egypt when I passed over the lintel and the two doorposts, freeing Israel from slavery, and when I said, (Leviticus 25:55) “For unto Me the children of Israel are servants” — servants to Me but not servants of servants (of human beings), and yet this man went and procured another master for himself — let him be pieced in their presence (i. e. let them be eye-witnesses now when this man voluntarily prolongs his state of slavery)! (Kiddushin 22b.)

Thus, for Rashi, the piercing, the boring of this slave’s ear, is a punishment! The slave should not be choosing to remain a slave. The slave was freed by God from slavery in Egypt. The only “master” the slave should serve is God, not a human master. Furthermore, I believe the master too is being punished (humiliated in public) as he too should not prolong the slavery of another human being, particularly another Hebrew. Either way, this wrong impulse of greed to create and codify permanent slavery is frowned upon and the Torah creates a public ritual to discourage such unwise and unethical behavior.

Second Case Study

Now, onto our second and final cases in Chapter 22:20-26, where the Torah addresses God’s concern for the disadvantaged in society; and this, should be our concern too given that we are of the Divine and what is upright to God is moral and wise to us, what we call Wise Action in our Insight Mindfulness tradition. There are four groups that are especially seen as vulnerable to exploitation in society: the stranger/immigrant (non-citizen), the widow, the orphan, and the poor. These four are given special concern by God. We too should give them special consideration.

This empathetic regard for those who are most vulnerable in society, again as God reminds the Children of Israel in the Torah, (should) comes out of our own experience of being the most vulnerable in Egyptian society. That foundational experience informs every fiber in our body and the impulse to not only refrain from harm but also to attempt to do good by relieving their suffering is an embodiment of our intergenerational trauma.

Do not do to others what is hateful to you (Hillel). Slavery was hateful to us. Oppression was a hateful to us. The murder of our baby boys was hateful to us. The blaming of us, the scapegoating of us for Egyptian leadership’s fear of incompetence was hateful to us. To resource and heal from our intergenerational trauma of slavery in Egypt we begin with special consideration for the most vulnerable in society.

Dr. Nahum Sarna, Z”L, teaches in his Jewish Publication Society’s Exodus that: “The Torah here enjoins sensitivity to their condition not simply out of humanitarian considerations but as a divine imperative (pg 137).” Sarna points out that the legal formation is in both the singular and plural as in the 10 Utterances, thus recognizing both the individual and society as equally responsible and accountable. For our ancestors, the Israelites, this means that if they are not concerned for the disadvantaged of society, then the consequence, their karma, is thus a sin against humanity and God.

It is of great benefit for us today to consider for our own Mussar Mindfulness practice if and how we are alignment with this value and impulse to: 1) not cause harm to the disadvantaged; 2) to be concerned (active, through deeds) for the disadvantaged; 3) to attempt to relieve their harm and suffering through individual and societal acts and legislation. As part of today’s practice in your Cheshbon HaNefesh journal (the Accounting of the Soul journal), consider three ways you can actively practice and implement these three above. Do at one a day. Send what you will do at kehilatmussar@gmail.com.

In conclusion, strong inner states can arise in us when doing this Torah study, when engaging in this encounter with our ancestors each week. Strong inner states can be a source of turbulence that affects the calmness of the soul. It is our Insight Mindfulness practice to recognize and accept these states and to know that they are just states that will pass with time; that we need not cling to them or avoid them. It is through our daily sitting mindfulness meditation practice that we develop the capacity to witness our inner states.

This is what we have begun to do right now: develop the capacity for inner distancing through our Torah study. And for those of you reading this, we also develop this capacity together through our sitting meditation practice, which is available in the YouTube video embedded above.

We honor God, our practice, our ancestors, our community, our Torah, and Dharma. I am honored to be your teacher and to be here together in order to enable offerings like this.

Any questions, comments, or concerns, please do be in touch at kehilatmussar@gmail.com. We value hearing from you about how this practice is going for you: of what benefit is this learning and practice to you.

We practice and ask ourselves:

  • Can we bear the burden of our ancestors, particularly when they act out with unbalanced middot?
  • Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
  • What can our ancestors and the Torah teach us?
  • And can we integrate and be mindful of these lessons and what was handed down to us by our ancestors so that we can use this wisdom to make sure that we do not cause more harm and suffering?

Podcast Audio Below:

Awakening Nitzavim: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 52nd Sitting Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar

Jump into this awesome practice of learning Torah from the perspective of Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya, Director of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar. This is our 52nd sitting this year (and the first of the New Year). A guided mindfulness meditation follows the talk. All Hebrew translated to English. All are welcome.
  1. Awakening Nitzavim: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 52nd Sitting
  2. Awakening Ki Tavo: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 51st Sitting
  3. Affectionate Body Scan
  4. Awakening Ki Teitzei: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 50th Sitting
  5. Awakening Shoftim: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 49th Sitting

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