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Parashat Mishpatim 5776 — 02/06/2016

Parashat Mishpatim 5776 — 02/06/2016

Shemot 21:1-24:18

And these are the judgments you [Moshe] shall place before them [the Israelites]. (21:1)

Wherever it says “and these” it adds to the previous [matter] – just as that [the Revelation] was from [Gd at] Mt. Sinai, so these [civil laws] are from Mt. Sinai. And why is the civil code taught right next to the laws of the Altar? To tell you that the Sanhedrin must be located next to the Temple. (Rashi ad loc)

The placement of the Torah’s civil enactments right after the Revelation, and right before the passage in which the Elders “gazed at the Gd of Israel,” has always caught the commentators’ attention. What is Torah telling us by juxtaposing these two seemingly disparate areas? The general conclusion is that Torah’s point is that these areas are not disparate at all, they are two aspects of the same underlying reality.

R. Steinsaltz first points out that most of the laws in Mishpatim do not apply to wanderers in the desert, but rather to a settled, agrarian society. Thus, one cannot argue that these laws necessarily were given here for practical reasons. Rather:

The answer is implicit in the question, and the message is simple: After the exalted revelation at Sinai, the most important laws for the People of Israel to learn … are the most detailed and earthly matters, like how to treat one’s servant or one’s donkey. … To put them on equal footing may seem radical, but the Torah does exactly this – overtly and deliberately.

This leads to a more profound question – why should this be the case? Why does the Torah equate a list of rather dry details with the lofty ascent of the soul to the celestial realms?

The Torah is not a philosoophical text that finds grandeur in metaphysical treatises. Rather, the Torah finds majesty precisely in the worldliness and in the details. At Sinai, we look up, toward the heavens above, toward the lofty, uplifting things. But immediately thereafter our view tilts downward, to the earthly, crude matter and, perhaps surprisingly, we are able to see holiness there as well.

In this respect, the revelation at Sinai and Parashat Mishpatim are actually one unit with two interconnected parts that deal with the same basic question: Where is majesty? Is it found in heaven alone, or perhaps elsewhere as well?

And R. Steinsaltz concludes:

Contrary to our expectations, the most exalted things can be found not above, but below. As we read in Psalms, “Gd is exalted above all the nations, His glory is upon the heavens. Who is like Gd our Lord, who is enthroned on high, who sees what is below, in heaven and on earth?” (113:4-6) The other nations believe in Gd as well, but they take the opposite perspective. They say that “Gd is exalted above all nations” only when “His glory is upon the heavens.” … In contrast, Israel says, “Who is like Gd our Lord, who is enthroned on high?” Gd is higher than the nations think, higher than the heavens, and that is precisely why He “sees what is below, in heaven and on earth”; He can reveal Himself equally in heaven and on earth, even in the smallest earthly details.

I think that the question whether our spiritual path is found in climbing the mountain towards the heavens, or plodding along on the earth, can be best addressed by considering the view from different states of consciousness. Certainly, in our ordinary state of consciousness, we find nothing particularly exalted here on earth. Human life, to our eyes, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The world is full of violence, inequality and greed, overt and subtle, and rare is the person who is given the opportunity to develop his or her full potential. Rarer still is the person who actually seizes that opportunity!

From this state, if we want to grow spiritually, we have virtually no choice but to look up to the heavens. The earth is corrupt – what can we find down here? The soul is pure, the body is corrupt and sinful. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. We find the holy in the transcendent, in reaching up to Gd. And we hope that by reaching up to Gd continually that we become imbued with the awe of Gd, Who dwells high above us in majesty, as a permanent state of awareness. Sometimes this is called “serving Gd out of fear [awe].”

However, Torah demands more than that from us. Once we reach a state where the transcendent is a continuous reality in our awareness, we begin to evaluate the “outside” world differently. As we are able to perceive more and more of the infinite intelligence that goes into the structure and activity of every little bit of creation. Rambam tells us that as this perception grows, naturally our love and admiration for Gd, the Source of all this intelligence, grows as well. We begin to perceive Gdliness not only in the transcendental realm, removed from the world, but in every detail of creation as well. The gap between the transcendent and the creation gets bridged in our perception. We realize that Gd is both transcendent and immanent at the same time. Gd may be “above” the world, but He pervades the world as well.

When we perform a mitzvah, we often preface it with a brief Kabbalistic formula which includes the expression “For the unification of the Holy One, Blessed is He and His Shechinah [immanent aspect].” All our practice is for the purpose of uniting the transcendent aspect of Gd and His immanent aspect, so that the created world can be a perfect reflector of Gd’s infinite perfection.

Haftarah: Yirmiyah 24:8-22, 33:25-26

The very first halachot in our parashah have to do with the treatment of Hebrew bondservants, both male and female. The haftarah is a stinging rebuke from Yirmiyah to the powers that were in his day, for violating not only these halachot, but their sworn word that they would not continue to violate them. Instead, they renewed the oppression and subjugation of their fellow Jews. Obviously they didn’t feel a whole lot of fellowship with them.

I think this is the whole point of having the initial halachot of Mishpatim being laws of Hebrew bondspeople. If the idea of Mishpatim is that we are supposed to see Gdliness in the expressions of creation, then certainly it should be easiest to see that Gdliness in those expressions that are closest to us – our own people, our own extended family! If we can’t see the Gdliness in another human being, how on earth are we going to see it in a building? And this is Yirmiyah’s point – since you have obviously failed to see Gdliness in people, your attempt or assertion that you revere the Gdliness inherent in the Temple is a complete fraud. Gd apparently agrees, for Yirmiyah’s prophecy goes on to predict the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the nation.

The parallels with our society should be obvious, but my mind immediately went to those who will scream at the “holocaust of the unborn” but have no problem dropping many tons of ordnance on innocent children who are actually already born. Or refuse to provide food, clothing and shelter to the lucky “babies” they are “saving.”