Mishpatim – February 1, 2019 – David Askenazi


Hurrying to get to my restaurant, a man approached me.  I knew what he wanted before he even said a word.  “Excuse me, sir, can you spare some change?” I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences.  What would you do? What should I do?  I could simply walk away. I can give him a dollar. I can invite him to eat. I can sit with him and ask him about his childhood. I can recommend a community kitchen. I can help him develop a business plan to save money, buy a nice suit and get a job. I can invite him home to live with me. What should I do? What would you do? What does Judaism teach us to do?

Here is what I did.  I did what I could with the resources that I had at that moment. I could not sit down with him for a meal (I was taking it to go), I didn’t have the patience to discuss his childhood. I could not invite him to my home. I did not know how to lead him to a homeless shelter.  But I had a dollar, so I gave it to him.  I did what I could with the resources that I had at that moment. At another moment perhaps I could do something different. Maybe this Easter, I will volunteer to serve hundreds of homeless people downtown.

This week’s Torah Portion is Mishpatim – which means… [These are the rules]. There are TONS of rules in this week’s portion.  There are 53 mitzvot – 23 are imperative and 30 prohibitive.

As I began to read through the Torah portion, I said to myself. …David, are these rules for me? Do they apply in 2019? Do I really have to abide by these rules? I have to tell you, I developed a lot of conflicts while reading all these rules.  Who came up with these rules?  What if I don’t agree with these rules? what if I don’t obey all these rules?

I am really blessed to be a multi-traditional Jew.  As a young child, I grew up in Mexico City, where there were 25 orthodox synagogues, and one GRINGO, English-speaking Conservative/Reform synagogue. We were members of a traditional orthodox temple, where I learned how to pray in a crowded room of men with long beards. The men would pray with amazing passion, reading a million words a minute on the bottom floor, right next to the Torah. Meanwhile, the women were upstairs in fancy clothes, chatting and following the prayers.  They were not allowed downstairs.  We were KOSHER, and part of being KOSHER is that you can’t mix milk and Meat.  This is one of the rules in this week’s Torah portion…….

לֹֽא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּֽחֲלֵ֥ב אִמּֽוֹ:

You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

So, because we were orthodox, we followed this rule.  I didn’t really know why It’s just the rule.  No meat and milk.  (and we absolutely NEVER ate PIGS or SHRIMP! those were 2 other rules. We did what we could with the resources we had at that moment.

When I was 8 years old, I moved to the El Paso, Texas, where my family attended B’nai Zion Conservative Synagogue.  When we went to pray, the men wore Kippot during services, but only a few wore them outside of the shul.  No one (except the rabbi) had a beard. Women were not allowed to be counted in the Minyan, but they were able to sit wherever they felt most comfortable.  I was perplexed why the rules had changed.  Had someone re-written the Torah? Was it ok to change the rules?

As far as KOSHER was concerned, I learned that some of my friends ate cheeseburgers (but not at the synagogue – G-d forbid!). But at pool parties, many would dare to add cheese to their burger.  And listen to this….one time at my friend’s house, my friend’s brother put BACON on his Cheeseburger!!!! But….no one ate Shrimp. Period. G-d Forbid.  We did what we could with the resources we had at that moment.

During my college years, I became a counselor at the at Greene Family Camp for Reform Jewish Living.  This was my first introduction to Reform Judaism. Jewishness was different here with a richer focus on the humanistic and spiritual aspect of Judaism, and less on ‘following all the rules’.  Do good for others, serve the community, Give charity.  But, during the overnights by the campfire, I clearly recall one of the counselors imitating Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi from Saturday Night Live…Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.  Only those who were lactose intolerant would dare ask to avoid those little yellow squares on their burgers!  BUT….absolutely there would be NO Pork of Shrimp at Camp. Period. G-d Forbid.  But, on days off, when we left camp, we looked to break the rules – we only ate Muffulettas, Shrimp Po-boys, and BLT’s.   We did what we could with the resources we had at that moment.

So, between my 20th and 45th birthdays, I was really confused about what I should eat? My ego (the part of my brain that actually makes decisions) was balancing the wants of the id (…bacon is good – eat it, eat it) with the messages from the superego (…”you should be a nice Jewish boy…don’t eat the bacon……you don’t need it). I was confused and I struggled and seemed to changed kosher styles every 6 months so it seemed… But I did what I could with the resources that I had at that moment.

Three and 1/2 year ago, I chose to stop eating meat.  Not because the Torah rules had changed, but because I dug deep into my ethical compass.  I had eaten meat for 40+ years, but when I became really conscious to how a steak starts on the cow and ends up on my plate, I found that the act of eating meat was inhumane and a culmination of a profit-making industry with no regards for ethics for animals who in my belief have souls and emotions. I developed my own Kosher rule “Thou shalt not eat anything that poops”. This rule came from inside of me – based on my experiences, knowledge, and feelings.  It was not handed to me by an ancient book. I have a long way to go with practicing what I believe (for example, I still wear leather shoes (except on Yom Kippur), and I eat eggs that make the companies rich and chickens miserable……), BUT I do what I can with the resources that I have at this moment.

I am not here to make you all into vegetarians (but happy to talk to anyone who is interested). I tell this story about my journey following the rules of eating Milk with MEAT to highlight the following:

Judaism (especially reform Judaism) teaches us that we must develop a moral compass.  Think. Question everything.  Look inside for the answers. Act because you believe deeply, and not just because an ancient scripture tells you to do it.  Then, do what you can to make the world a better place with the resources that you have at the moment.

Recall there are hundreds of rules in this Torah portion.  Some make a lot of sense (i.e. don’t place a false report, don’t curse at judges, don’t accept bribes, don’t kill an innocent person). But I don’t follow the “Thou shalt not KILL” rule just because it says I shouldn’t. I should not kill a person because killing is unjust, causes pain, and leaves scars of pain.

Now, I Acknowledge that some rules in this Torah portion could have been very important for society 5000 years ago. BUT There are some rules in this week’s Torah portion that I believe all will agree that they have no place in our society. Consider the following rules:

#1. There are specific rules about how we should treat a slave.  You should only have a slave for 6 years and let him go on the 7th, BUT there is a clause…he can’t take his wife and children. If he wants to live with his wife and children, he must remain a slave forever.

#2. When you lend money, you should NOT charge interest.  Any Jewish Bankers here following this one?

#3. You should slaughter and sacrifice an animal three times a year. (by the way, one of my first memories as a young Jewish kid in Mexico was when a group of men would kill a goat on Passover and smear its blood on the wall of the Synagogue playground)

#4. You should not east Meat and Milk.  I have an issue with the ‘”NO cheeseburger rule”…can you see why I’m conflicted? I don’t think I should eat any animals, with or without their mother’s milk.

So, we don’t agree with all the rules. How can we deal with conflict that we are supposed to follow the Torah, yet, we also have a moral compass? In my opinion, we need to think deeply, and with great intention.  What kind of world do we want to live in? let’s focus on the things that will bring about change.  Don’t just do things because ‘It’s the rule”.  Seek to understand. What do you truly believe? Figure out what it’s going to take to get what you want”.  Do what you can with the resources you have at this moment

2.5 years ago, Ben Weil ask me to help find a chair for the Tikkun Olam Committee.  I volunteered with the intention that I would be the kindling and the glue for the Temple Emanu El Tikkun Olam programs. I have seen this congregation do some amazing things. I have the best volunteer job.  I help others to help others.

As a congregation, we do a lot.

  • We bring in checks for the 10-day campaign, and we distribute them to needy organizations
  • We bring in food during the high holidays, and we sort it and distribute it to Jewish and non-Jewish Food Kitchens across the city.
  • We put money into the Tzedakah Box and Richard Goldstein makes sure that it is dispersed to a needy charity each month.
  • We volunteer to spend the night and bring food to homeless families and David Reese and Billy Marsala make sure that homeless families have a warm place to stay and a hot meal
  • We bring in Toys for Feeling Gelty during the holiday season and Anne Ovson makes sure that it gets dispersed to needy children
  • We bring forth the need for Change – and Amy Alon helps provide opportunities to assure that the voice of the Temple, the Jewish Voice resonates across the city, as we fight for social Change in solidarity.
  • We bring food and we serve the homeless on Christmas and Easter through Community Kitchens, and Julie Levinson-Gavis made sure the effort was finely coordinated
  • Heather, Julie, Aaron, David, Amy, Anne, Janice, Grant, Gerry and Kaydee lead Mitzvah Day. We provide opportunities for over 100 temple members to spend a day helping to heal the world!  Here is my plug ” sign up for MITZVAH DAY on Sunday, April 14th, 2019″

We. You. I can do a lot to help heal the world.  Sometimes you will only be able to give the homeless man a dollar, but sometimes you may, like Janice Ford-Freedman start a Clothing bank – here at temple that will provide clothes to hundreds of people around the city.

Find your passion. Get involved. Continue to support the TO activities here at temple and remember.  Do what you can do at this moment with the resources you have.  Do this for your health, for your Judaism, for your spirituality, and for those you serve. Do it with grace, love, intention, and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom.

David Askenazi



One Comment Add yours

  1. Sylvia Wright says:

    David, I was unable to attend Shabbat Services when you spoke I just read your words on the Temple Blog. The words are beautifully written, interesting and educational. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    Sylvia Wright


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