We’re often taught: It’s what’s on the inside that counts. And, sure, beauty is only skin deep, and we should never judge a book by its cover. But what about when there’s a disconnect between what we’re told is on the inside and what we see on the outside – when one’s actions leave something to be desired, though supposedly one’s heart is in the right place? Is it still what’s on the inside that counts? This week’s Torah portion suggests otherwise.
“These are the rules (the mishpatim) that you shall set before [the Israelites],” the portion begins, and what follows is just that – an extensive list of specific rules governing everything from worship and dietary practice, to holiday observances, to ethics in business practice and the treatment of animals. There’s the call to release slaves in the seventh year, and the designation of murder and kidnapping as capital offenses – the same punishment incurred for insulting one’s father or mother, by the way. This Torah portion famously judges “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and calls us to take care of the widow and orphan.
All in all, there are 53 separate mishpatim, 53 rules to be followed, in this week’s Torah Portion – comprising a little bit of everything.
But there is one that stands out, one that’s repeated twice in this particular Torah portion and – according to the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) – 36 times in the Torah overall. It’s the most often mentioned commandment in all of Torah: “Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Often when we cite this all-important commandment, we quote the text as it appears later in the Torah in Leviticus (19:34), where it’s written slightly differently. There we’re told: “You shall love [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Yet, of the 36 times this commandment appears, love is only mentioned this once. And it’s notably absent this week in Parashat Mishpatim from the book of Exodus where the rule is first introduced and repeated. “Love the stranger as yourself” is beautiful, it’s poetic, it’s a compelling ideal. But it’s subjective, it cannot be measured or proven, and ultimately it’s less important. Would it be wonderful if we all loved the stranger? Absolutely. But, as we know all too well, one can profess love and act contrary to it. And ultimately it’s not what’s on the inside that matters; it’s what we do, regardless of how we feel, that counts.
This inside/outside issue has figured prominently this past week in the wake of the President’s response to questions about heightened concerns in the Jewish community with an uptick in antisemitic incidents following his election. That there has been an uptick in such incidents is beyond dispute. We’ve heard about the bomb threats being called into JCCs. We see reports of swastikas and other antisemitic graffiti scrawled on property around the country. Antisemitic trolling and rhetoric online is at an all-time high. And just yesterday, 100 grave stones were overturned in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.
When first asked the question about what reassurances the President could give to the Jewish community, his answer eventually meandered to this: “I think a lot of good things are happening, and you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. Okay?” But it wasn’t OK – his response neither acknowledged the very real anxiety and concern of the Jewish community, nor offered any tangible ways in which that love might be demonstrated, or its absence might be prosecuted.
The second time the President was asked the question, he cut the reporter off, declaring the question itself “very insulting” and proclaiming himself “the least antisemitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” And perhaps this is true, perhaps – as many have been saying, as the reporter himself tried to say – the fact that he has Jewish family members, that he is a Zayde to his grandchildren, tells us that in his heart he loves Jews and is indeed positively disposed to Judaism.
But this week’s Torah portion shows us that this isn’t sufficient. The Torah doesn’t tell us, or even suggest, that love will conquer all. What does the Torah give us? Specific and extensive rules outlining how we are supposed to interact with others and look out for their wellbeing; an absence of any mention of, or concern for, love and emotion, which simply cannot be regulated; a willingness to underscore the importance of its commandments and the expectation they will be upheld by enumerating the punishments incurred when they are not followed – these are the ways the Torah conveys its concern and commitment to creating a just, equitable and safe society.
We’re going to see a lot of love, the President said. Well, as Cornell West teaches, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And, as this week’s Torah portion reminds us, we don’t get to justice by professing what we feel inside; we build a just society by legislating and enforcing the behaviors that make love tangible on the outside.
Finally, today, the President said: “The antisemitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
It’s a start. Now let’s hope that that work is spelled out in mishpatim – in concrete rules and steps and actions that can truly create a just society. Amen.