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Parashat Mishpatim 02/12/2010

Parashat Mishpatim

The Angel is in the Details

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Parashat Mishpatim appears to be a tremendous contrast with the previous Parashah, in which the entire nation of Israel had the peakest of peak experiences, Gd’s revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  The nation as a whole experienced a level of existence that was completely transcendental to ordinary experience, holy and sublime.  It was, as the people themselves reported, an experience that they couldn’t sustain.  Anything we experience creates a flow of energy through our nervous system – through our organs of perception and into our awareness.  If the nervous system is clean then this flow can proceed smoothly.  The cleaner the nervous system, the greater the flow that can be sustained without breaking down into turbulence, which can be quite destructive.  The spiritual concomitant of this is found in the clarity of the soul.  If the soul is burdened with corrupt ideas and understanding, or corrupt behavior, then it blocks the flow of divine blessing that Gd is attempting to shower on it.  The flow becomes turbulent and destructive as it interacts with knots of impurity.  After hundreds of years sunk in a degraded culture it is a great tribute to the Israelites that they were able to handle as much of the experience as they did.  But now the task at hand is to stabilize and deepen the experience, and to remove the impurities in body and soul that prevent its enjoyment.  This is the task of the laws in Mishpatim.

The corpus of Jewish Law is certainly meant to govern our life in this world, as our Sages tell us: “The Torah was not given to the ministering angels.”  Honor thy father and thy mother has no meaning in a world where there is no procreation!  Yet I think that a case could be made that living life according to the dictates of Torah is also a kind of training regimen for living life in the realm of the spirit.

Consider for example Shemot 23:8 – V’Shochad lo tikach, ki haShochad y’aveir pikchim visalef divrei tzadikim – You shall not take bribes, for bribery blinds those who can see and perverts the words of the righteous.  We all know of cases where some kind of bribe has perverted the outcome of some process.  A personal example.  I took a friend, who is disabled and uncomfortable sitting for long periods of time, to a local physician.  After keeping us waiting 45 minutes he apologized, saying, “I was with a drug company salesperson.  I felt obligated to him because he gave me and my wife a trip to Las Vegas.”  Would we have confidence in any prescription this physician might write?  Clearly his words are already perverted.  This same scenario is writ large in our entire political system – lobbyists for moneyed interest groups regularly ply our legislators with trips and gifts, as well as the campaign contributions that allow these legislators to buy (often scurrilous) advertisements and get elected over and over again.  The recent Supreme Court decision invalidating some of the limits imposed on this type of activity appears to confuse “free speech” with shochad.  The entire health-care reform “debate” should convince anyone of the accuracy of the Torah’s words.

On the other side of the coin, our Sages and Rabbis have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid even the hint of bribery.  One story in the Talmud relates that one of the Sages owned some land that was leased out for a percentage of the crop.  The tenant would bring the landlord’s share to him every Friday when he came to town to have Shabbat with his family.  One week he brought the landlord’s share on Thursday, and explained that he came into town early because he had some matter before the Rabbinical court (which met on Mondays and Thursdays).  The Sage, who was a member of the court recused himself that day – he felt that the benefit of having his produce a day early was enough that it would skew his judgment.

In fact, shochad can be quite subtle and invidious.  Any time we have a stake in something, our judgment will tend to sway towards that side which gives us greater pleasure or benefit.  Another example from the Talmud.  There is a special court that would convene in Jerusalem to decide if a particular year should be a “leap” year, with an extra month of Adar.  When an extra month is added in the early spring, the subsequent months are pushed back, and 6 months later, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur come late in the season – mid- to late October.  (Nowadays the calendar is fixed and will remain so until the Temple is rebuilt and the Sanhedrin is reconstituted and able to receive witnesses to testify to the appearance of the New Moon.)  On Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) must immerse himself 5 times in a mikveh during the service in the Temple.  The mikveh is out-of-doors.  Therefore the Kohen Gadol is not allowed to sit on the court that determines if a leap year should be declared, lest he have in the back of his mind the discomfort of immersing in the cold fall air (it gets pretty chilly even in Jerusalem, albeit not like Iowa!).  This too is a form of shochad.

In fact, I think it is fair to say that any time we have an attachment to the outcome of a process, we are susceptible to shochad.  The only way truly to fulfill the mitzvah of “thou shalt not take bribes” is to have a state of awareness at all times that is detached from the physical world.  How so?  Last week we read a Malbim where he asserts that inherent in a person’s soul is knowledge of the infinite.  If the individual self can become identified with this infinite, pure being that is at our core, then while our body and our mind are active in the created world, we are not identified with any of this changing, sensory activity.  We remain infinite and unchanging – that is, what we identify as our self is now infinite, and the finite aspects of our personality, which we used to identify as our self, are now seen as simply parts of the worlds of phenomena.  In this way we have detached ourselves from any pulls one way or the other based on sensations of pleasure or discomfort.  We have truly transcended shochad.

In short, even a seemingly obvious commandment like avoiding bribery has vast implications for our understanding of who we really are and on what level we are supposed to be living our lives.  Actually practicing avoiding bribery trains us to live life on that level, and I believe this analysis can be carried out for other mitzvot as well.  Ultimately Gd wants us to be a “holy people.”  The root kadosh, holy, means separate.  Apparently Gd wants us to detach ourselves from this world while being an active participant in its perfection.  As Gd is holy, transcendental, detached from the universe and yet profoundly connected to it, so too our mandate is to be holy, attached to the infinite, transcendental level of life.  This is the vision that we were given in Parashat Yitro, and in our Parashah we see that in the minute details of halachah we have a path to realize that vision.