Yom Sheini, 17 AdarI 5781
Monday, 1 March 2021
Parashat Mishpatim 2015

Parashat Mishpatim
13th Feburary 2015 - Rabbi Sandra Kviat

A teacher has had a miscarriage after she was hit trying to break up a fight between two students at her school. She was teaching her Spanish class when a student walked in five minutes late and demanded another student give up his seat for him. The conflict escalated, causing the teacher to intervene. During the affray she was accidentally hit in the stomach. She instantly fell to the ground, crying, and was taken to the hospital, where she miscarried.

If this was you, your wife, partner, daughter or sister how would you react?·What would your instant reaction be? Would you want the student/s to be punished?· The above story happened in New York in 2010, culminating in the students being suspended. The teacher did not want them to end up in the criminal justice system, so she refused to press charges. Her main worry was about their welfare and the consequences this could have on their lives. If you read the online comments attached to the article, you’d be surprised (or perhaps not) at the calls for punishment for the two 15 year olds, ranging from expulsion, criminal charges or a ‘good smack’.

The same situation is mentioned in this week’s parasha; ‘When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning [as the judges determine]. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life… (Exodus 21.22-23).

The rabbis spent a lot of energy and thought putting ‘gates’ around these laws to make it clear that they are not meant to be taken literally. A famous ‘gate’ is the subsequent interpretation of the ‘an eye for an eye’ quote where the consequence of an eye injury is not, that you get to poke out your assailant’s eye but rather that they have to compensate you financially for the loss of your eye. Whatever the situation, the reaction cannot be instant revenge. The essence of parasha Mishpatim is about creating a society and a justice system that stops people from acting emotionally and instantaneously without thought for the consequences to themselves and the wider society. It’s about realising the long term effects of our actions, and the need for a system that is just, above emotion, and devoid of personalities.

This week a new law was passed about what is called ‘revenge porn’. It is aimed at people who put up intimate pictures of their exes online without their permission as a means of revenge. It is now a criminal offence. It covers images shared on and offline without that person's permission with the intent to cause harm.

We live in an ‘instant’ world, where boundaries and consequences are hard to see, and where we can exact cruel revenge immediately, without thinking of the long term consequences for us all. Like the biblical laws, this law was created to curb people’s ability to seek revenge instantaneously.

It is easy to dismiss the Torah and rabbinic interpretation as irrelevant to us today, if we don’t see beyond the surface. However, like us the rabbis were concerned with creating a just society which also understood the importance of mitigating the consequences of our actions. We have a responsibility, not only to our teens but to ourselves, to develop congregations that create space for discussing the outcomes of our behaviour and models alternatives. We are not apart from the world the media is discussing, rather we are very much a part of it, and we can equally be part of developing an alternative to instant gratification and revenge.