2019-01-30 / Religion Column

Thinking globally and acting locally is fundamental to Torah

Lions Gate Rabbi Emeritus

Parashat Mishpatim
Ex. 21:1-24:18

“Think globally and act locally.” This statement is a fundamental principle of Torah, the accumulated wisdom of the Jewish people. Although it is of recent origin and appears in various contexts including environmental action, urban planning, and economic development, it captures a basic dynamic of Jewish teaching—the need to apply universal principles to particular contexts. From biblical times on we have attempted to apply the fundamental values that honor and elevate human life and sustain and cherish creation to the specific situations that confront us.

This dynamic process underlies our understanding of the rules and regulations of the Sefer Ha-B’rit (Book of the Covenant or Covenant Code), a collection of laws appearing within the weekly portion Mishpatim. Within the narrative context of the Book of Exodus, the revelation of the Decalogue immediately precedes Moses’ presentation of these ordinances to the Israelites. Thus, the Covenant Code begins the process of applying universal values as expressed in the Ten Commandments to the real-life challenges facing our people.

This dynamic is enshrined in the text itself. Modern biblical scholarship has identified two different types of legislation within the Covenant Code; apodictic laws— universal proclamations—and casuistic laws—specific applications. The former consists of a number of straightforward commands such as “You shall not wrong a stranger!” (Ex. 22:20). The latter presents a number cases—the if, when and how an explicit rule should be applied as in the extended exposition of the laws concerning a Hebrew slave at the beginning of the Torah portion (Ex. 21:2-11).

Using biblical legislation as the bedrock for Jewish law and practice, the rabbis of the Talmudic period extracted basic universal principles from both genres of biblical law and applied them to specific life situations. The extended Talmudic discussion of the laws of bailment, for example, expands on a short exposition of such laws in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 22:6-14). There, as in other places in the Covenant Code, the Torah text serves as the starting point for a more intensive exploration of the ways in which we are to exercise our general sense of responsibility towards other people in a variety of specific situations.

A clear example of “thinking globally and acting locally” appears in the exposition of the rules concerning interest-free loans to the poor (Ex. 22:24-26). Through a careful reading of the opening clause, “When you lend money to My (i.e. God’s) people, to the poor among you…” (Ex. 22:24), the rabbis understood the words “My people” broadly, expressing God’s concern for all poor people and not narrowly referring to poor Israelites alone. However, they also understood that we are not God and have a restricted area of action. Therefore, they created an order of responsibility to the poor that began with those most close to us—members of our family—and expanded outward; first to the poor in the Jewish community, and then to the poor, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in our towns and cities, and continuing outward in ever broader circles. In contemporary terms, the sages ask us to think about poverty systematically because all poor people are God’s people but apply solutions that work locally for the poor among us.

The principle of “thinking globally and acting locally” has protected us, on the one hand, from being trapped in our own limited concerns and, on the other, from being lost in the pursuit of nebulous dreams and ideals. It has also required that we remain visionaries when we look at what we are doing and pragmatists when we consider universal values. It maintains the dynamic tension between Jews, a specific people, and Judaism, their universal faith. It teaches that like Moses we need to be both prophets and practitioners. And as Hillel recognized when he considered the issue, it is an ongoing Jewish concern—the dynamic tension that drives us forward—or in Hillel’s words, the enduring question: “If not now, when?” 

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