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Parashat Mishpatim 5774 — 01/22/2014

Parashat Mishpatim 5774 — 01/22/2014

He must pay for his [victim’s] complete cure. (Shemos 21:19)

Chazal comment, This verse authorizes doctors to engage in healing (Bava Kama 85a). Rashi elaborates, And we do not [take the view that] “The Merciful One struck him, and He Himself, will heal him.”

Chazal [our Sages] are teaching us that all the suffering a person experiences, even being insulted and cursed, is from Heaven. But [Hashem sees to it that] the suffering is inflicted by someone who himself is “guilty” (m’g’algalim chov al yedei chayav). [That a person should view his suffering as punishment from Above] is spelled out by our Sages in commenting on the verse, Vahasheivosa el levavecha – Impress it on your heart (Devarim 4:39). That is, “Realize that it is your sins that debase you,.” What is more, even if someone intentionally strikes you physically, this, too, is from the Hand of Heaven [giving a punishment by means of someone who himself is guilty.  (Chafetz Chaim)

Disclaimer: As I have written before, the following is an attempt to understand why WE suffer.  Our only appropriate response when someone else is suffering is, “How can I help?”

In a rather unassuming way, the Chafetz Chaim is tackling one of the deepest problems that a religion can face: if we are the creations of a perfect Creator, why do we suffer?  I don’t make any pretention at having a definitive answer to this question – our tradition tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu asked Gd Himself the same question during his 40 days on Mt. Sinai and was told that the answer was unfathomable to human beings.  But since, to some extent at least, all of us suffer in our lifetimes, it’ll be useful to try to get some perspective on the meaning of our suffering.  If suffering is meaningless and random, it is unbearable.  If there is a redemptive quality to it, we can take some solace in the knowledge that our pain will be for our ultimate benefit.

The basic Jewish view of suffering is that it is the result of sin.  This is generally expressed in the language of “punishment,” but Biblical punishments, even those meted out by beit din (Rabbinical court) and certainly those meted out by Heaven, are not retributive in nature.  Rather, they are corrective in nature.  Our secular society maintains a hint of this understanding; the prison system in many states is run by the Department of Corrections, and prisons are often called penitentiaries, that is, places where inmates focus on repentance, i.e. where they do t’shuvah.  The fact that the reality falls woefully short of the ideal is quite another issue.  Gd, of course, has no need to be cruel or vindictive, unlike human beings with big egos, and His “punishments” are therefore meant to help us succeed in accomplishing the mission He has assigned us.

Sometimes, especially when we are dealing with laws of nature, it is pretty obvious how negative experiences lead to corrections in behavior.  “Once burned, twice shy” expresses these mechanics nicely.  It doesn’t matter how our hand got into the fire, or whether we intended to put it there or not.  The action is purely physical and the reaction is purely physical; there is no moral component involved.

On the moral plane the situation is a little more complex, because the circumstances with which we are dealing are also more complex.  Our actions affect the physical circumstances of those in our vicinity, but they also affect the feelings, and therefore the behavior of those in our vicinity as well.  This influence spreads out through ever-expanding layers of connections; we affect A, changing him, and A affects B, changing her, etc.  You always wanted one of your videos to go viral on YouTube?  Your every thought, word and deed go viral throughout the entire universe!

Now a fundamental law of physics is the law of action and reaction.  If body A exerts a force on body B, then body B exerts and equal and opposite force on body A.  For example, the gravitational pull of the sun on the earth is exactly the same as the gravitational force of the earth on the sun.  Why then, do we see that the earth goes around the sun, while the sun stays put at the center of the solar system?  The truth is, the sun is actually not stationary at the center of the solar system.  However the sun is much more massive than the earth, and the reaction of a body to a given force (the acceleration of the body) is inversely proportional to the mass.  The mass of the sun is about 333,000 times the mass of the earth.  Therefore the acceleration of the sun is about 1/333,000 of the acceleration of the earth caused by their mutual gravitational attraction.  While the earth is orbiting the sun at a distance of 93,000,000 miles (at a speed of almost 67,000 mph), the sun too moves.  Both bodies actually orbit their common center of mass, which is a point located about 300 miles from the center of the sun (the radius of the sun is about 435,000 miles and of the earth is about 4,000 miles).  But obviously the reaction of the sun to the earth’s pull is much less than the reaction of the earth to the sun’s pull.

I think we can draw a useful analogy between our little spin around the solar system and the mechanics by which our actions come back to us as “reward” or “punishment.”  As we explained above, our every action ripples out across the universe, interacting with everything in the universe (because, after all, everything in the universe is connected at its root).  Since there is an action, there will also be a reaction back on us.  The question is, how will we react to it?  Physics tells us that if we are spiritual “lightweights” we will have an outsized reaction – we will be buffeted about by all the different forces that are brought to bear on us, like the proverbial leaf in the wind.  On the other hand, if we are spiritual “heavyweights,” we will be much less subject to the various pushes and pulls that we experience.

What is a spiritual “heavyweight”?  As we have often noted, we all have surface values to our personalities, and we have deeper values.  At the very depth of each one of us is our infinite Source, the soul which is, in our Sages’ terminology, a piece of the Divine.  By going within ourselves we can contact these deeper levels of our minds and personalities.  Eventually, when our minds are fully expanded, we become anchored to our infinite Source, the way a ship is anchored to the seabed, or a tree is anchored to the earth by its roots.  With this anchor, nothing can shake us, we can take anything that comes our way completely in stride.  We have equanimity – we are equally unfazed when something apparently negative happens as when something positive happens, and we can respond to whatever situation comes our way calmly and rationally.  We understand that whatever challenges we face come from our loving Father in heaven and are for our own growth and benefit, and we can turn to Him to give us the strength and wisdom we need to deal with these challenges.  This is really the ultimate “freedom from fear” that we all seek!

Shemoneh Esrei

Hear our voices Hashem our Gd

Be merciful and compassionate towards us

And receive with mercy and favor our prayers.

For You are a Gd Who hears prayer and supplications

And do not send us away empty from before You.

For You hear the prayer of Your people, Israel, in mercy.

Blessed are You, Hashem, Who hears prayer.

Let me begin by noting that the shemoneh esrei is a framework that allows us to converse with Gd.  Since most of us are not on a first-name basis with Gd, this framework is vitally important, as it gives a structure to the conversation so that we cover all our bases in a systematic way.  We are not at liberty to delete anything from this framework, but within it there is some flexibility.  We are able to, and are encouraged to, add personal prayers relevant to the b’rachah being recited.

There are a few rules:

  • During the first three and the last three b’rachot we don’t add anything.  These are not b’rachot of supplication; rather the first three express praise of Gd and get us in the appropriate frame of mind for this awesome encounter, while the last three are of thanksgiving, thanking Gd for all the goodness He has given us already, and thanks in advance for answering the prayers we’ve just spoken.
  • During the middle b’rachot we can add personal prayers that are relevant in the context of that b’rachah: prayers that a sick person be healed during refa’einu (“Heal us”), prayers for knowledge in chonein ha’da’at (Who graciously grants knowledge), etc.
  • During the b’rachah Sh’ma koleinu (the b’rachah we are discussing this week) and during Elokai n’tzor (the supplication right after shemoneh esrei) we have an “open mike” to ask Gd for whatever we need.
  • Personal supplications may be said in any language that we understand

I’ve always found it amazing how the inclusion of prayers about my own personal situation, petty as they may sometimes sound, has the power to lift the recitation of shemoneh esrei from a rote recitation to a real conversation.  I certainly have enough to ask for, but then, we all do.  Every beat of our hearts, every breath we take, is a gift from Gd.  The continued existence of the universe is a gift from Gd.  Our Sages tell us that our Patriarchs and Matriarchs were infertile because “Gd desires the prayers of the righteous.”  Apparently He also desires the prayers of us ordinary folks as well, because there is plenty for us to ask for!

The line that strikes me the most in this b’rachah is And do not send us away empty from before You.  We ask Gd to fill us up with His blessings, be they material or spiritual.  But for Gd to do so, we have to leave room for those blessings.  If we approach Gd full of ourselves, He’ll figure we think we’re OK as is and don’t need any additional input from Him.  What we need to do is to empty ourselves of our egos as much as we possibly can.  Perhaps that is why this blessing is towards the end of shemoneh esrei – the previous blessings, praising Gd as infinite and supreme, and admitting that we need His help in getting all the manifold things we need to survive and to thrive, serve to empty us of our illusions of self-sufficiency and prepare us to approach Gd with the requisite humility.  Of course this preparation will be a lot smoother and more effective if it is accompanied by a humble and unassuming lifestyle the rest of the day as well!