Parshat Mishpatim

Torah Reading for Week of February 3-9, 2013

“Peace Starts At Home”
By Rabbi Avivah Erlick, ‘09


Patients I visit in my chaplaincy work often ask me if the term “Jewish chaplain” is an oxymoron. Doesn’t “chaplain” mean Christian? Am I not really a rabbi? And is what I’m doing, sharing spiritual presence and nondenominational prayer with people of all backgrounds, not really Jewish?

The idea that Jews need to steer clear of non-Jews in prayer is deeply rooted in our texts. In this week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, for example, the Israelites are told that that they will need to “smash the pillars to bits”, demolishing the holy places and objects of the foreign religions they will encounter when they overtake the land that will be Israel.

As a professional interfaith chaplain as well as a rabbi, I have come to feel that assertions such as this in our texts have been misunderstood by many Jews, and that this has led to needless parochialism and fear. Interfaith work is not only okay, I see it as a pure expression of Jewish teachings, and the reason why I am drawn to it.

At the same time our tradition teaches the importance of avoiding the practices of other faiths, we are taught to take care of all people. Rabbi Akiva addressed this balance: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” We wish to live in a world of mutual trust and honoring of difference – where no one would wish to deprive us of our own, personal relationship with the Holy One, and we need to afford others the same respect. I am privileged to be able to model this through my work.

Jewish chaplains need not say the “foreign” words of other traditions. I was once asked to perform an “Anointing of the Sick” (it used to be called “Last Rites”) for a dying Catholic when no priest or Christian chaplain was available. I got the booklet of prayers and divided them up; I read the 23rd Psalm while family members read the prayers with Christian doctrine and verbiage in them. As I held the spiritual space, a family otherwise too distressed by the moment was able to relax into the eternity of this opportunity, to bring blessing to their loved one as they transitioned away from this world. They were very grateful for the opportunity.

Leaving the pillars of other faiths in place is very Jewish indeed. By understanding the Parsha’s teaching differently, we can see the message in a new light: as a command to reject values that undermine human connection and understanding. Smash obstacles to mutuality. Hate “hate,” and love “love.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Avivah Erlick is the president of LA Community Chaplaincy Services, an interfaith referral agency for rabbis and certified chaplains. Find her on the Web at

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