Sunday, January 31, 2016

Parashat Mishpatim 5776 Not in Heaven

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Mishpatim 5776
Not in Heaven

As the chapters following the Revelation at Sinai unfold, the narrative seems to have been replaced by a slew of laws. Servants, cattle, damages and punitive obligations fill the pages of this week’s Torah portion, and it seems as if the lofty experience of standing at Sinai and witnessing the theophany has been eclipsed by the pedestrian realities of everyday life.

The shift is quite dramatic: The first 20 Chapters of Shmot were filled with pathos and action: An abused nation and its savior, a magical staff, mighty plagues and the splitting of the sea, the introduction of the manna and the wonder of Shabbat inspired us and connected us with heaven. All this, followed by the Revelation at Sinai literally, the most awesome experience mankind has ever experienced. And then, somehow, the narrative gives way to everyday hustle and bustle, the real-life problems that are the central feature of Parashat Mishpatim: If an ox gores and causes damage, restitution must be paid.

There is no question that these laws are both logical and necessary for the functioning of the nation; what may need explanation is their context. Why the sudden shift from the spiritual apex at Sinai to the minutiae of Mishpatim? Why the shift from religious law to common law?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once famously observed that the physical needs of our fellow man are our own spiritual obligation. Parshat Mishpatim may be understood in much the same vein: Our financial obligations are, in fact, spiritual obligations. All our workaday interpersonal relationships are part and parcel of our religious life. While we might be tempted to think that the reduction of lofty, Divine law into hard currency is demeaning, the Torah seems to be teaching quite the opposite: Had Torah law dealt exclusively with overtly otherworldly, spiritual concerns, it would not be the Living Torah, the Torah of Life, that it is. A Torah that deals exclusively with our relationship with God would be a Torah that is irrelevant for much of lifes realities, and not a way of life.

In other words, it is precisely the context which makes these laws so interesting and compelling. Last weeks parasha ended as the People took a collective step back from the overwhelming religious experience at Sinai. Hearing God speak directly to them proved too much for them; the nation asked that Moshe act as an intermediary, that he alone stand and receive the Word of God and teach them in a more manageable, recognizable fashion. When the heavens opened and they each heard the ten statements uttered by God Himself, the people begged for God to stop. They felt incapable of accepting the Torah directly from God, and asked that Moshe receive it on their behalf. Immediately following this request, Parashat Mishpatim begins: These are the laws God then shared with Moshe. This is the precise content that God intended to transmit directly to each and every member of the nation, but which they felt incapable of receiving directly. Parashat Mishpatim, with its seemingly mundane and detailed social laws, is the content of that awesome and awe-inspiring Revelation.

So much non-Jewish religious belief focuses on the spiritual world, on the aspects of holiness and spirituality that are divorced from human experience and interaction. We might have imagined that the Torah, too, would concern itself only with this aspect of human capability. Yet the unmistakable message of the laws God taught Moshe at Mount Sinai is that no such division exists in Judaism. The Torah, which comes from heaven, is not in heaven, nor is it designed for heavenly beings. Torah deals with the reality that unfolds on the lowly terra firma, and not in some rarified atmosphere occupied by beings who are wholly spiritual.

The social obligations enumerated in Parashat Mishpatim are Divine law. An elevated level of human interaction is also holy, and no less a spiritual commandment than the laws regulating our service of God. The obligation to perfect human society is a Divine imperative.

Echoes of Eden

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