As its name suggests, Parshat Mishpatim, “The Portion of Laws,” contains a long series of laws. Some are related, some less so. One law states, “You shall not curse elohim or a leader” (Exodus 22:27). Rashi takes elohim to refer in fact to God, but the term can also mean judges. In either case, the law seems simple – respect authority, maintain law and order. When building a legal system and communal structure, a law of this sort makes sense. Without deference to those who create and interpret the rules, the whole system breaks down.
Fast forward a few hundred years. The Israelites have entered the land of Canaan and established a kingdom. Due to political intrigue, the kingdom has split into two, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahab, king in the north, wants a garden near his palace. But there is a problem – a commoner named Navot owns the neighboring land, on which he has cultivated a vineyard.
King Ahab offers Navot an even better vineyard in exchange for the land, or a generous buyout. Navot refuses. Ahab will not let his dream of a garden lie fallow, and sends the following letter to the elders of the town: “Proclaim a fast and seat Navot at the front of the assembly. Seat two scoundrels opposite him and let them testify against him, ‘You have cursed God and king.’ Then take him out and stone him” (1 Kings 21:9-10). And so it goes. The king gets his garden.
While the precise words differ, the phrase which condemns an innocent man to death clearly evokes our text in Exodus. Ahab perverts the judicial system and his power as a leader, turning the Torah’s imperative for law and order into a pretext for unjust law and oppressive order.
The question for us: Do we blindly follow authority because it is lawful, or resist authority because it can easily become abusive?
The Talmud also wrestles with the law in Exodus (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 66a). Understanding elohim as judges, the Talmud asks what shared trait between judges and leaders requires a law saying we should not curse them. Perhaps it is that they hold more power than us. A reasonable conclusion – messing with bigger fish can lead to being eaten! But the Talmud notes that the Torah also says we must not curse the deaf (Leviticus 19:14), implying we shouldn’t curse people perceived to have less power. The common denominator must instead be shared humanity. Do not curse anyone.
Stable order is not the true value, nor is the exploitation of power. Rather, the Talmud urges a systemic respect for human dignity. Do not curse – do not participate either in rebellion or in acquiescence that does not uphold the fundamental worth and dignity of every human being. Finding the right ways to protect what we love and to fight towards what we yearn for is a tall order, and the work of many generations. But together, we are up to the task.