Message from the Cantor
February 19, 2023

Dearest TBC Family,

In light of our recent Confirmation Class trip to Washington, DC with the Religious Action Center, I wanted to share with you my sermon from this past Friday night’s Shabbat service. May it serve to spark hope and germinate a desire to make your voice heard!

Cantor Harriet
Shabbat Mishpatim February 17, 2023 | 26 Shevat 5783

       Last weekend, I had the privilege of traveling to Washington, DC with our Confirmation Class for the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. We rode down on a bus with students from Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, and Temple Israel of Westport, and joined together with over 400 other Jewish teens from across the United States. The weekend, as you may imagine, was charged with energy and excitement as the students learned about a variety of issues of critical importance to Reform Jews and how to effectively advocate and lobby in support of those issues – everything from Climate Change and the Environment to Gun Violence Prevention, Mental Health Awareness to Antisemitism and Reproductive Healthcare and Abortion Rights. I was incredibly proud of our 4 TBC students who lobbied Legislative Assistants from Senators Blumenthal and Murphy’s offices and Representative Jim Himes’ office. The experience for the young people in attendance was an impactful and unforgettable one, not just for the new friends and the incomparable feeling of being surrounded by other people like you, but also for the skills learned and the realization that their voices really can make a difference and change the world.

       How fitting then that this week’s parasha, Mishpatim – translated literally as, “Laws,” puts forth what is often called, the “Covenant Code, or Promise Code” – the criminal and civil laws deemed necessary to establish a just society. And it is a quote found in this very parasha, Exodus 21:22-23, that inspired one of our lobbying groups who spoke persuasively and eloquently about the need and the right to safe, equitable and legal access to abortion and reproductive health care for all people who can become pregnant: “When [two or more] parties fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning.

וְאִם־אָס֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֥ה נֶ֖פֶשׁ תַּ֥חַת נָֽפֶשׁ׃

But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life."

These two p’sukim imply, our Sages teach, that because the punishments are doled out differently for the death of the unborn fetus – a monetary penalty – versus the adult pregnant woman – death – it is inferred that the life of the mother is of primary value over the potential life within her womb. Right here in our sacred text we have the basis for the Halachic stance regarding abortion in Jewish tradition: Life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the unborn child, and in cases where a mother’s health – physical, mental or emotional – is put at risk by carrying a pregnancy to term, it is not only her choice, but her duty to abort that pregnancy in order to affirm and save her own life. This practice – Pikuach Nefesh – the preservation of life – is the highest command in Judaism, superseding even Shabbat observance.

       So, when one religious group claims that only their definition of “life” is valid, or when laws are passed or revoked based on that claim such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer, the Jewish voice and right to freely practice our religion is in effect, silenced and denied. Judaism is an important voice in support of abortion access and must be taken seriously in public discourse. In the case of Parashat Mishpatim, law and story are deeply intertwined. These verses describe a potential legal scenario, but surely we must remember that behind every such scenario is a human story – a lived experience that impacts the lives of those involved and the lives of their loved ones. As Jews, we simply do not have the luxury of standing quietly by when our rights are threatened and our beliefs are silenced. We must speak up and take a stand.

       To be a Jew is to be part of the centuries old project of creating a fair and equitable society, wherever we might live. To remain neutral in the face of injustice or cruelty is an outright betrayal of our sacred texts, the suffering of our ancestors, and God’s vision of a post-slavery world redeemed through justice, love and acts of loving-kindness. For Judaism to stay relevant, and to have integrity, neutrality is never an option. I urge you to add your voice to any of TBC’s current 3 Social Justice Action groups and join our Confirmands in speaking truth to power to build the better world we know is possible….
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