May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Mishpatim: The Presidential Pardon

Sid Wasserman walked up to Rabbi Morgenstern during the kiddush after davening on Shabbat morning, a gefilte fish ball on a toothpick in one hand and a small plastic shot glass of Scotch in the other. The rabbi had just finished reciting kiddush over a tall, cool silver becher of grape juice just moments earlier, but judging from Sid’s breath, he had paid a visit to the Johnny Walker bottle before the rabbi had completed the blessings. The rabbi had an egg kichel between his fingers and was about to bring it to his mouth when Mr. Wasserman stopped him mid-bite.

“Rabbi, let me ask you something.”

“Sure, Sid.”

“Me and my friends, we were following along with the parsha this morning…”

“Very commendable.”

“Yeah, thanks. And we noticed a pasuk we found a little disturbing. So we wanted to ask you about it.”

Rabbi Morgenstern was very excited. Sid Wasserman was not the kind of guy who usually asked parsha questions. Truth be told, he was more of a talker during laining, much to the rabbi’s chagrin, and the rabbi had never seen him open a chumash before. Maybe his drasha this week had piqued Sid’s interest.

“Fire away,” the rabbi said enthusiastically.

“I was reading the part about giving interest-free loans—me always being alert to a sweet deal— when I came across a pasuk that says you shouldn’t curse God, and you shouldn’t curse the Nasi, the president.”

“Actually, the first part of the pasuk isn’t only talking about God,” the rabbi said. “In this case, Elo-him is referring to judges. You should not curse a judge.”

“Yeah, that’s nice,” Sid Wasserman said, tossing back his Scotch, “but it’s the second part of the pasuk that got my attention.”


“Nasi be’amcha al ta’ov. Don’t curse the president. Does that mean I can’t speak badly about the synagogue president?”

“Actually, I would translate it as you should not curse your leaders,” Rabbi Morgenstern said. “I realize we use the word nasi in modern Hebrew to mean the president of a country, like the American President, but I don’t think that’s what the Torah had in mind.”

Sid popped the gefilte fish ball into his mouth and then leaned over the table to grab another shot of Scotch before continuing with the rabbi.

“I see.”

“According to the Oral Tradition, nasi here refers to a king. But it was extended to include the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. So I would have to say that the prohibition is against cursing any sovereign Jewish leader, whether in the realm of government or in the dominion of Torah.”

“So, Rabbi, bottom line, does this prohibit gossiping about the shul president or not?”

“I would have to say no.”

“Whew, what a relief.” Sid tossed back his second (third? fourth?) scotch.

“But I would also point out that there are other laws against saying anything bad about the shul president,” the rabbi added. “There’s the prohibition against lashon horah, speaking ill of others, and it’s a very serious aveira.”

Sid reached over and scooped some tuna onto a saltine.

“Thanks, Rabbi. You’ve been most helpful. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think the ladies of the Sisterhood are finally bringing the potato kugel out of the kitchen, so I’m going to go before you tell me I can’t say anything about the members of the synagogue board of directors either.”

And on that note Sid Wasserman walked over to the kitchen to confer with his friends, and Rabbi Morgenstern finally got to eat his egg kichel. He was in an indulgent mood, so he had a second kichel and even visited the creamed herring tray. But he avoided the sour cream and onion dip. It was too oniony. A man has to know his limitations.

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.

By Larry Stiefel

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