“If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
The quotation is from Abraham Lincoln, but it could easily have come from the Torah. The writers of the Bible knew that people in power can be tempted to abuse that power. So they wrote commandments that are addressed specifically to those in positions of power.
Of course, that means all of us. Because at one time or another, each person is in a position of power over someone else. So this week’s Torah portion offers a diverse set of laws that are seemingly unrelated, yet which collectively offer a lesson in human interaction.
In case you don’t feel like reading chapters 21 to 24 of Exodus (which comprise parashah Mishpatim), here’s my summary of the commandments therein:
Don’t be a jerk.
Don’t be cruel.
Don’t take advantage of people.
Don’t hurt people, physically or psychologically.
Apologize if you do hurt them.
Make restitution when you screw up.
The underlying message is clear. We interact with other people on a daily basis, and the Torah wants to remind us to be careful with each other.
Children often fantasize about being grown-ups, about being free to do anything they want. They think that being an adult means complete freedom. As adults, we learn that such freedom is both immature and irresponsible.
We are required to abide by the rule of law, and the unwritten rules of society. Because running a red light is not only illegal according to the law books. It also breaks the societal law that we cannot threaten the safety and well-being of others.
The Talmud teaches, kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh, all Israel is responsible one to another. It reflects the basic idea of communal responsibility in Jewish law. Today, we live in a world where Jews and gentiles mingle freely, and so I propose that we emend the saying to read: Kol h’amin arevim zeh ba’zeh, All humans are responsible one to another.
That means taking care of each other and our planet. It means being kind and thoughtful, even when we want to be selfish. It means that we live in a planet-wide community and we have a responsibility to the entire community. And it means that when people in power abuse that power, we must speak out.