January 31st-Feb. 1st, 2003
29 Shevat, 5763
"And these are the ordinances (mishpatim) that you [Moshe] should place
before them [the Jewish people]…" (21, 1; my emphasis)
If anyone is getting tired of all the "narrative" portions of the Torah
(Genesis, the first few portions of Exodus), and is ready to dive in to
some hard-core Mosaic legislation, then this parsha is definitely for you!
Although there is a brief continuation of the
story line of our people’s experience at Mt. Sinai, including our moving
collective acceptance of the responsibility to fulfill the totality of G-d’s
mitzvos (commandments) to the best of our ability (24, verse 3 and 7), the
emphasis here is definitely on laws, statutes, ordinances (mishpatim).
The Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Mitzvah Education) enumerates a total of 53
commandments (!) discussed by the Torah in this portion, the bulk of them
falling under the heading of what we would call, "civil and criminal law."
Laws of fines and penalties, details of capital punishment, property
damages, torts, regulations for debtors and creditors…The attorneys among
our people will feel right at home (or, perhaps, at work) as they peruse
these verses. Many of the Talmudic tractates typically studied in yeshivos
are rooted in topics specifically covered in this parsha.
One might well feel that all this nitty-gritty of the legal relations
between people in society isn’t very "religious" or "spiritual," nor does
much of it seem very uniquely Jewish. What culture or civilization doesn’t
prohibit theft, or provide for compensation to an injured party?
To answer this, we need first to throw out whatever conception of
"religion" we have when we consider our Torah. Having grown up in a
non-Jewish environment (and a secular one as well), many of us
automatically associate "religion" with things like attendance at a house
of worship, recital of prayer and benedictions, rituals accompanying
life-cycle milestones, and so on. Moreover, we might tend to assume that
only one "sphere" of our lives (or buildings, or calendar days) is sacred,
and the remainder is not. Certain areas of our lives need to be regulated
by "religious" considerations, while others do not.
It’s true that the Torah does make certain distinctions in this regard.
The Sabbath is objectively endowed with more holiness (kedusha) than the
six days of the week, and the Temple grounds are invested with more
sanctity than any other spot on earth--and certain specific Torah laws and
prohibitions follow directly from these absolute spiritual realities (or
others of a similar nature). But the "call of the Torah" is to invest all
of our lives, in all of their many facets, with holiness and sanctity. The
mitzvos--the Almighty’s instructions on how we can elevate this physical
world, and our physical selves, to His service--span precisely ALL areas
of our lives…because we Jews are commanded to be a "holy nation" (goy
kadosh) through and through.
Certain Torah laws may seem, in our minds, to be more associated with
"holiness," especially if they pertain directly to our relationship with
G-d (like prayer). However, tthe truth is that the laws of damages and
property (and the like) in this week’s portion are no less crucial in
building us into a holy nation--that oft-repeated goal of the entire
Torah-- than any others. What is meant to be holy? Our work space, our
domestic space, our public lives, our private lives, our thoughts and our
speech and our dietary habits…and so on. In short: The whole shebang!
All of the mitzvos of the Torah help to sanctify us, for they all come
from the One
Who is most sanctified--the Holy One, Blessed be He. This is precisely the
truth that is contained in the very first words of the portion, as our
Sages explain in the Midrash (and as Rashi cites in his commentary). "And
these are the ordinances that you should place before them…" Why does this
verse need to begin with, "And," which serves to highlight the idea of a
continuation with (or an addition to) what has preceded it? Rashi explains
that the Torah does indeed want to highlight the continuity between this
portion and the previous one. "Just as those [ordinances] which have been
stated previously came from Sinai [i.e., the Ten Commandments in last
week’s portion], so too do these [in this week’s portion] come from
Just as the commandment not to have any other gods (# 2 of the 10) and to
keep the Sabbath holy (#4) were uttered at Sinai--i.e., had their source
in G-d Himself Who spoke them at the public revelation at Sinai--so, too,
these laws of damages and such in this week’s portion came from Sinai,
i.e. from G-d Himself, as well. These laws may have been taught privately
to Moshe (as opposed to having been uttered publicly to the whole nation),
who then passed them on to the Jewish people…but they are no less divine
in origin than the Decalogue. The Torah needs to teach us this because we
might assume that all these pedestrian regulations of fines for goring
oxen, and so on, all these laws that seem (on the surface) to resemble
your standard civil code, were made by Moshe himself (or his court of wise
men). After all, these laws don’t seem religious or spiritual…or divine in
So the Torah specifically links them to what came before: "And these are
the ordinances that you should place before them…" The previous ones are
divine in origin, and these laws are as well! The previous ones (spoken by
the awe-inspiring Divine voice at Sinai) are clearly intended to shape us
into a holy nation….and these are as well! All of the mitzvos of the Torah
have one Source, G-d, and all of them have one goal, to form us into a
holy nation. We have to relate to all of them (and guard them) in
precisely that way and with that perspective, studying and performing them
with the constant awareness that they are precious mitzvos, divine
directives, life-enhancing commandments from our Creator.
Whether they pertain to our relationship to G-d, or our relationship to
our fellow man (created in the image of G-d), the mitzvos were given to us
by the Holy One, in His infinite wisdom and kindness, so that we could
transform our lives, and ourselves, and become holier people. What’s more,
even the laws that are seemingly most accessible to our human
understanding, still contain depths of meaning and wisdom that we can
never fully fathom. Start to study Talmud and Midrash, as they burrow
beneath the surface of the Torah’s verses (and traverse their immense
breadth), and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Divine laws from the Great
Lawgiver (not Lawyer)!
May we let ourselves be inspired by the many (and various) laws in this
portion, just as we were inspired by the Revelation at Sinai in last
week’s portion. It’s all good…and it’s all from G-d.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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