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Parashat Mishpatim 5773 — 02/06/2013

Parashat Mishpatim 5773 — 02/06/2013

And these are the ordinances you shall place before them. (21:1)

Wherever it says “These” it separates [the current passage] from the previous passage.  But if it says “And these” it adds to the previous passage.  Just as the previous passage was from Mt. Sinai, so too the following passage was [given] from Mt. Sinai.  (Rashi ad loc)

They [the elders] saw the Gd of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of sapphire bricks, like the essence of the Heavens in its purity.  Against the nobility of Israel Gd did not stretch out His hand; they had a vision of Gd and they ate and they drank (24:10-11)

They looked at [Gd] with a proud heart from their eating and drinking – thus Midrash Tanchuma.  But Onkelos does not translate this way, rather it is an expression of greatness.  (Rashi ad loc)

As Rashi points out, the inclusion of the word “And” at the beginning of the Parashah serves to link the contents of Parshiyot Yitro and Mishpatim.  Rashi further comments that the point of this linkage is that the “spiritual” content of Yitro, including the actual Revelation at Sinai, is inextricably linked to the “mundane” content of Mishpatim, which is the basis for Jewish monetary law.  Commentators throughout the centuries have pointed out that this linkage teaches us that it is up to us to infuse the sanctity that we participated at Mt. Sinai into the everyday business of living in the material world.  Further, we learn that although we think we may understand the “common-sense” laws (don’t steal, don’t lift, twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift), in reality all the mitzvot of the Torah are decrees of the King, and must be obeyed in that spirit.

It comes as a bit of a surprise then that at the end of the Parashah we find Aharon’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, and the elders of Israel, participating, with Moshe Rabbeinu, in a vision of Gd!  It would seem more natural for the Parashah to have continued the “spiritual” theme of the latter part of Yitro with the vision of the elders, and follow it up by the laws of dealing with the material world of commerce and agriculture.  Why do the “spiritual” passages bookend the “mundane” passage?  I believe Torah is giving us an object lesson into the nature of the growth process.

We are all familiar with the story of creation’s emanating from Gd’s absolute Unity and ramifying into all the diversity we see around us.  But what is the purpose of creation?  Why do we have the diversity we see?  Throughout the ages our tradition has given us various answers, but they all make the same basic point.  Physical creation exists so that creatures can evolve with a complex enough physiology to make moral choices.  Those creatures, of course, are human beings.  What is the purpose of having human beings, and what is accomplished by meeting these moral choices, or better, moral challenges with which we are challenged?

Again, many answers have been given, and again, all revolve around one point: the purpose of a human being is to purify himself so that he may draw close to Gd.  We have, through the ages, been given many examples of those who have purified themselves by following Gd’s commandments, by Torah study, by prayer and meditation, by doing deeds of kindness, by emulating Gd’s attributes.  In all these instances the individual’s actions conform more and more closely with Gd’s Will, which is to create greater and greater levels of order in the environment.  The subjective experience of the individual is one in which one begins more and more to sense Gd’s presence at the deepest level of every aspect of creation, including our own nature.  In other words, the creature, whom the Creator has been observing all along, now is able to “turn around” as it were, and observe the Creator.  It is as if the entire process of creation has come full circle – the infinite Gd, the Creator, projects Himself as it were as finite values, but then allows those finite values to grow and evolve in complexity until the projection, the finite creature, rises to reflect perfectly the infinite nature of the Creator.

What we conclude from this is that we can describe the process of creation and evolution as a kind of “sandwich,” with the Creator at both ends as it were, and the creation in the middle.  In truth, a better description of the situation would be a circle, beginning and ending with Gd, making an excursion through the creation but always coming back to the starting point.  For the purposes of exposition however, consider the “sandwich” explanation and its relation to our parashah and its linkage to the prior parashah, Yitro.  After Yitro helps Moshe Rabbeinu establish a judicial system, the Torah describes the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Now this Revelation is primarily Gd-initiated.  To be sure, the people’s response to Gd’s initial statements through Moshe must be correct to indicate to Gd that they are ready to receive the Revelation, and it is, in fact, satisfactory to Gd.  That having been established, it is Gd Who “comes down” to Mt. Sinai and speaks to the people, so that they know that Gd exists and communicates directly with His creatures.  This side of the “sandwich” is parallel to the act of creation, where Gd speaks and the world comes into existence – Let there be light!

Connected to this act of Gd is the creation itself.  The creation is run by various laws of nature – rules by which the finite parts interact with one another to form different levels of wholeness.  This is parallel to the rules given in our parashah, which bind together the people of Israel and the Land of Israel into a coordinated whole in which the individual behaviors of each part contribute to an overall harmony.  As a result of this harmony, each individual is able to grow and evolve in his or her service of Gd, and perception of Gd’s underlying all of creation.  As Moshe Rabbeinu will say in Sefer Bamidbar (the Book of Numbers), “would that all Gd’s people would be prophets!”  This step, putting the top layer on our sandwich, or bringing the creation full circle, gives us a way to understand the placement, at the end of our parashah, of the elders’ vision of Gd.  We have come from the Revelation/Creation, emanating from Gd, through the ramified creation of rules and regulations, of interacting systems forming greater and greater wholes, to complex systems returning to Gd, their Source.

We see this structure in creation, we see this structure in Torah, we see this structure in our own consciousness as we grow towards infinite value of consciousness.  Reflect on it the next time you say Hamotzi and bite into a nice sandwich!