I ‘heart’ Torah – Parashat Mishpatim February 13, 2015 / 25 Shvat 5775
By Rabbi Lisa Edwards
When you were in grade school did you celebrate Valentine’s Day at school? We did — in the 1950s — in 1st grade we could give Valentines to whomever we wanted. The teary-eyed kids left sitting at their desks no Valentine in hand taught our teachers a quick lesson, and by 2nd grade we were expected to make Valentines at home for each and every classmate, no one should feel left out.
It kind of defeated the purpose of Valentine’s Day as we later came to know it — a special day reserved for you and that special someone. But, except for the curmudgeons among us who were grumpy about being nice to everybody (or signing their name 30 times on those little store bought Valentines), it did have a good effect on a lot of us — or at least it was intended to have a good effect — to make us more open-hearted. Most of us easily understood the intention to be nice to everybody, to be inclusive. We understood our teachers’ attempts to officially sanction kindness and not cliquishness or bullying — it was quite the opposite, now that I think about it, of allowing us to choose teams at recess, a custom which oddly continued alongside our “humanitarian” Valentine’s Day, and left many of us feeling embarrassed and belittled. [It didn’t happen to me so much at recess since I and my friend Beth — the other tomboy in my class — were allowed to play softball with the boys. We had to play on opposite teams, however, so that neither team was “handicapped” by having two girls. In fact, we were pretty good (especially Beth), so there weren’t any complaints. By the way, Beth and I still know each other, and yes, of course, she’s a lesbian too.]
But I digress, our generic Valentines were just one of the quirkier ways our school attempted to make us more empathetic people. Of course the true bullies among us managed to “personalize” the Valentines just enough to have the opposite effect: “Dear Ugly, won’t you be my Valentine?” After all, the teachers couldn’t monitor all those little cards, or watch over us while we wrote them.
I know that for all kinds of reasons — maybe childhood trauma among them — a lot of us have ambivalent feelings about Valentine’s Day. In a Jewish setting, of course, Valentine’s Day, named for a Catholic Saint, and with a questionable history anyway, seems distinctly unJewish. Just as Purim, with its custom of costumes has become a substitute for Halloween, what with its origins in pagan festivals, so Jews have found a substitute for Valentine’s Day — the lesser known holiday of Tu b’Av, which comes in the summer. In modern-day Israel, it is celebrated as a holiday of love (Hebrew:חג האהבה, Hag HaAhava), similar toValentine’s Day. It has been said to be a “great day for weddings”.
But you can’t live in the United States without being aware of Valentine’s Day — and I certainly know a lot of Jews who celebrate it — who have special anniversaries or traditions on it. And of course there are those who dread it — those whose partners have died; those who want to be in a relationship but aren’t; those whose partners aren’t well or who are far away; those who used to be in a relationship in which Valentine’s Day was important and are sad not to be happily in that relationship anymore; those who don’t want to be in a relationship and wish people would stop assuming they want to be! I could go on ….but you get my point. Valentine’s Day can bring great joy and great heartache as well as indifference.
And if in fact we learned empathy along the way in our lives, today — the day before Valentine’s Day — is a good time to remember it, and to approach people cautiously, gently, without making assumptions. It’s not a day of hearts and flowers to everyone.
Empathy is something that those of us studying Torah together this week have also been thinking about. For this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, means rules — and is famous for the long list of laws and rules and regulations that God delivers to Moses to deliver to the people Israel, still newly freed from slavery. It can seem a dry Torah portion, for the text shifts suddenly from the narrative of the earlier parts of Torah — the exciting story of the Israelites escaping from Egypt, and last week’s dramatic revelation on top of Mt. Sinai when God delivers the 10 commandments amidst thunder and lightening and the loud blasts of the shofar — to this week’s long, long list of rules. Here are the rules that the Israelites have already promised to obey, even before they heard what they are. Now we must listen carefully, for otherwise we won’t know what it is we promised to do
Despite the long list, I think God delivers the rules rather brilliantly. And here’s why I think so. Because here and there amidst the dry rules, comes various reminders that these laws are meant to make us more human — more humane, that is, more empathetic.
Do not oppress a stranger, is one of these. Instead of saying only that, God elaborates: for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. [Exodus 23:9]
Atem y’datem et nefesh ha-ger “you know the soul of the stranger,” because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
So many of the rules given in Mishpatim are rules that come up against our natural inclinations. So many people left to feel bad on Valentine’s Day, for example, while the rest of us merrily make our dinner reservations and order roses, hardly noticing that our joy might be oppressing someone else — someone left alone, adrift. We don’t intend to make others feel bad — we’re just focused on ourselves or our beloved. Don’t always focus on yourself, says God.
It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy Valentines Day with our special someone, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take every opportunity to appreciate our beloveds and the gift of a happy relationship. It means that even in our joy, we need to remember those who aren’t joyous. We all know the feeling — we’ve all been the one left out somewhere, some time — Atem y’datem et nefesh ha-ger you know the soul of the other — you were yourself an other — some time, some place, maybe even here and now. We’ve all been there, still are…sometimes.
However we do it, whenever we do it, celebrating love is a good thing to do.
You shall love — v’ahavta — God commands it of us, and Torah and our sacred texts tell stories of it and celebrate it in all sorts of ways. Love of humans for other humans and for God — humans being reminded to care about other humans — perhaps those verses of Torah are the best Valentines of all.