Spreading Fires: Applying Mishpatim to Impeachment

Future generations will look back on this week as the first time an American president ever faced a second impeachment trial. Whatever the outcome, we are witnesses to history in the making.

Future generations will look back on this week as the first time an American president ever faced a second impeachment trial. Whatever the outcome, we are witnesses to history in the making.

In moments like these, when so much hangs in the balance, it is a human tendency to search for moral clarity and cues about how to enact our core values in the world. This is precisely the kind of "politics" Kavana engages in... not the politics of supporting candidates or parties (we cannot, as a 501c3), but the politics of considering that an ancient religious tradition can be applied to and has something relevant to say to us about our society today.

It's rather incredible, then, that as the Senate trial unfolds this week, we find ourselves reading Parashat Mishpatim in our Torah cycle. This Torah portion, more than any other, is packed with laws concerning interpersonal behavior, morality and personal responsibility.

Today, I want to home in on a single verse that I believe speaks very directly (if not literally) to the case at hand. Exodus 22:5 instructs the Israelites, "When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make restitution."

Bible scholar Robert Alter notes that this verse considers an instance in which "a person's negligence in supervising an activity in his own field -- evidently, some sort of controlled burning -- results in damage to someone else's field." The negligent party -- the one who started the fire and allowed it to spread out of control -- is held responsible for the extensive damage.

As this law is taken up by the Talmud (see Bava Kamma 60a), the rabbis make an important pivot and read the verse metaphorically. All of a sudden, "thorns" refers to the wicked who can be ignited towards dangerous ends, and "fire" can mean so much more than literal fire. Using this tool of metaphor, it's easy to apply this verse very directly to our current impeachment charges of "incitement of insurrection" against the former president. Although the former president did not violently storm the Capitol building himself on January 6th, he certainly lit a match with his words and encouraged this fire to spread to the many "thorns" in the neighboring field. Every one of his supporters who knowingly upheld his "big lie"about the election also helped to fan the flames, and as more information comes to light about those who played behind-the-scenes roles in convening, encouraging, and welcoming violent insurrectionists on January 6th, it seems that there's a sub-group of supporters who also bear great responsibility. Our Jewish tradition offers clear guidance: calls for "unity" and "moving on" are premature and insincere traps in this moment. Both the former president and the many supporters who spread fire must be held accountable for the tremendous damage -- to human life, to property, and to our democracy itself -- that resulted from both their actions and their negligence.

As I write, we don't know what the outcome will be of the Senate impeachment trial. Whatever happens this week, I am certain that this critical conversation about responsibility and accountability will not be over. Only through continued calls for truth and accountability will we be able to ensure that we can stop violent insurrections from taking place in the future, and to build the safe and democratic American society we yearn to see.

In this historic week, Parashat Mishpatim reminds us of the importance of accountability. May we be privileged to apply this moral wisdom as we continue striving to build a more "perfect Union," with justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare of all in mind.

Wishing you a good week,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum