Parashat Mishpatim / January 28, 2011


By: Rabbi Lisa Edwards

Tracy makes many concessions in order to live with me. One such concession – you can all sympathize with her later – is that if you live with me you also sometimes have to try to live in semi-harmony with other “roommates.”  I’m referring to the ants with whom we sometimes share our kitchen and bathroom.

You might assume that my inclination to live with ants rather than spray them dead is related to my inclination to be a vegetarian.  And I suppose there is some connection.  I do prefer to try to live in harmony with God’s other creations, but in truth I’m not that good at it – even though, as Tracy likes to say, I won’t eat anything that has (or had) a face, I still wear leather shoes some times.  And if the ants get a little too enthusiastic and bring too many of their friends to the party, I’ve been known to aim a spray bottle in their direction – not that I’m proud of that.

Mostly though, as I’ve pointed out to Tracy, if you leave ants to their own ways, they’ll clean up your kitchen for you – removing scraps of food you might otherwise have missed, and then disappearing themselves when they get the job done, reappearing only when you miss a scrap in the next round of kitchen cleanup. I can tell none of you are ever coming to our house for dinner again!

The truth is I love to watch ants do what ants do, even when it sometimes looks like they’re about to take over the kitchen.  And I learned to watch ants when I was a kid and someone gave me a plastic windowed ant farm . . . did you hear that Uncle Milton Levine – inventor of that ant farm – died this week at age 97?  He invented this educational children’s toy in 1956, inspired by two events:  watching ants at a picnic and remembering a childhood fascination of collecting ants in jars, and coming back from WWII and reading an article about the coming baby boom –hm, he thought – the future is in toys.

Did any of you have an ant farm? It seems likely some of you did since over 20 million of them have been sold since 1956.  They’re still sold today and look pretty much like they did then.  If you had an ant farm, you might remember that you have to send away for the ants – gathered by ant rustlers paid a penny apiece for ants from Mojave Desert – they come in the mail in a little tube – mailed from Culver City!

Once the ants arrived, I remember waiting weeks for them to start doing what they do.  They’re slow starters, but once the tunnels are dug you can see how cooperative they are –what team players – and how their cooperation allows them to get things done.

Without anthropomorphizing too much – but some – it only takes a few minutes of observation to see how humanlike ants are – or rather, how antlike humans can be – especially when it comes to building things together – things like communities, although I think humans tend not to be so cooperative as ants.

It seems though that humans used to be even less cooperative than they are now.  In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, God continues the task at hand, the one begun in last week’s parsha, Yitro, of trying to give Moses and the Israelites enough rules and regulations – way more than the 10 commandments spoken from the mountaintop last week – to get the newly freed Israelites to live together in some semblance of harmony.

Three times in Torah – once last week and twice this week – we are told that the Israelites in one voice say to God:  “All that you have spoken we will do.” kol ha-d’varim asher diber Adonai: Na’aseh.  [Exodus 19:8, 24:3,7  — and sort of at 20:16 also]

Jews through the ages like to joke that we have to be told 3 times that all the Jews spoke in one voice at the foot of Mt. Sinai because it was the only time in all of our history that Jews were so agreeable as to speak all in one voice, let alone to promise to do all God asks of us.

And it’s true we’ve never been all that good at following all the instructions given us in this week’s parsha, or last week’s which included the 10 commandments.  After all, would God have thought to instruct humans in how to work well together if we were naturally good at it?  Do the ants have Torah?

By the way, despite my admiration for ants, its not as though they’re pacifists or anything — ants too sometimes go to war with other ants and other species.  There’s even race wars among ants — red ants often go to battle against black ants.

There is apparently a very popular video game about ants – to its credit part of the game is to get your ants to do what ants do:  find food, reproduce, build homes and colonies.  The introduction to the game gives the player not 10 commandments, but tells us there is one simple rule for the brand new ant colony each player is to start.  The one simple rule? “Grow!”  Which sounds great until you keep reading: “Keep growing more and more ants until finally you rule the entire town!

Winning the game is simple: Make as many Ants as you can! 1 billion Ants conquers the world!”

Of course I should have known:  the name of the game is “Ant War!”    []

Unlike Uncle Milton Levine’s Ant Farm which allows us to watch ants do what they do naturally — Ant War is clearly a human invention.

Parashat Mishpatim – mishpatim meaning “rules” – sounds like it’s going to be a dull portion in our people’s story – a dry list of rules and regs.  Yet this list of do’s and don’ts is anything but dull.  It’s a short course in Jewish values and includes such highlights as husbands’ obligations to wives, treatment of parents, how to handle inadvertent destruction of someone else’s property, the appropriate punishments for particular crimes – did a person mean to kill you? Then you may kill him first, but if he meant only to rob you, you may not take his life [22:1-2], the kind treatment of widows and orphans, and workers and the poor who need to borrow from you . . . and twice it tells us what Torah will tell us again 34 MORE TIMES:  far more times than Torah or God insist on any other value, rule or law:  You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger –ya-datem et-nefesh ha-ger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt [in Mishpatim:  Exodus 23:9, quoted here, but also 22:20].

Here God gives us a commandment not just by telling us not to do something, but by reminding us that we know why not to do this:  don’t do it because you know the soul of the stranger – because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.  V’ger lo teel-khatz – a stranger do not oppress – from the root lakhatz– to oppress, to squeeze, to press or distress.

Sometimes, I admit, it’s kind of fun “to play” with the ants – put something in their way (a stumbling block) to make them change direction or put a little gentle pressure on them to slow them down, but I stop quickly because I really can imagine what it would feel like to have that done to me.  After all, ants used to be my roommates literally – that ant farm sat on the dresser in my bedroom for years.  No wonder Uncle Milton Levine created something that didn’t allow us to actually interfere in the lives of ants (well, other than shipping them across the country and putting them in a box!).  I wonder if he thought as I do now, that an ant farm might imbue children with some empathy – if we could imagine how it might feel to be an ant, how much more easily might we be able to imagine how it felt to be a human being other than ourselves?

Uncle Milton – nice Jewish guy from Pittsburgh, son of Jewish immigrants from Russia – surely he came to us with some Torah already instilled in him – how to treat God’s creatures, how to learn from them to be a good worker, a team player, a community activist, a sympathetic neighbor, how to use our incredible strength to build community and do good in our world. In an interview in 2002 Uncle Milton said: “Ants work day and night, they look out for the common good and never procrastinate.  Humanity can learn a lot from the ant.” [see LA Times obituary, January 26, 2011, AA4]

And from the uncle.

Shabbat shalom.


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