Weekly Torah Commentary – Mishpatim January 28, 2011

One of the longest Torah portions, Mishpatim contains 23 positive commandments and 30 negative precepts. Included are laws regarding: the Hebrew manservant and maidservant, manslaughter, murder, injuring a parent, kidnapping, cursing a parent, personal injury, penalty for killing a slave, personal damages, injury to slaves, categories of damages and compensatory restitution, culpability for personal property damage, seduction, occult practices, idolatry, and a particularly stern prohibition against oppressing widows, children and orphans, as well as converts.

The portion continues with the laws of: lending money, not cursing judges or leaders, tithes, first-born sons, justice, returning strayed animals, assisting the unloading of an animal fallen under its load, Sabbatical year, Shabbat, the Three Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot & Succot).

The commandment to treat widows, orphans and converts with consummate kindness is well known.  God’s compassion towards them is clearly expressed in this week’s parsha.

But modern society in general, as well as modern Jewish society appears to be less conscious of another prohibition given to us this week:  you shall not curse a leader among your people.

Leadership, whether religious or civil, carries immense responsibility and any honest leader will acknowledge that the responsibility far outweighs the ‘perks’ of the job, whatever it might be.  Every word, every action is scrutinized by a well informed public in these days of internet and television.

That individuals will disagree with certain actions of leaders is inevitable — and acceptable.  What is not acceptable, however, is to ‘curse’ the leader for his decisions, actions or behaviors.

Before you protest, hear me out.

Every human being is created in the image and likeness of God according to the opening chapters of Torah.  Every human being is capable of making choices, good and bad.  Like every other human being, leaders make mistakes; at times, leaders are guilty of outright sin against other individuals and/or against the society they serve.  Those are irrefutable facts.  But who among us can claim to have never sinned, to have never made a serious mistake in judgment?  The only difference is that the leader’s failure is publicly known while ours may be more private though no less a failure.

To examine and accept or reject the validity of a leader’s course of action is totally within our responsiblity as citizens of society.  To have an opinion about a leader’s policies and procedures is our right.  To speak out against tyranny and corruption is necessary.  What is forbidden is to curse the person of the leader.

We forget that we do not have at our disposal all of the information the leader may have.  We forget that he or she probably sees the issue from a perspective we have not thought of; and we do not often stop to think what we might do if we were in their shoes.  We think we know — but we truly don’t.

And if the action or decision was truly wrong, how do we know that perhaps the leader has repented?

To curse someone is to wish or pray (God forbid) that something evil and harmful should happen to them. That is utterly abhorrent to Hashem and has no place in the life of a person who seeks godliness.  It is a direct violation of the commandment to love your fellow man. Therefore we are forbidden to curse a leader — and indeed, we are forbidden to curse anyone.

In Tune with Torah this week = pray for your leaders, as Torah commands and guard your tongue in speaking about them or their actions.

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