You’re standing in the middle of a large desert, surrounded by barren mountains and rocky crags, only a few dry shrubs to be seen – no trees or fields at all. The skies are turning dark and stormy, lighting shooting across every few seconds. You look to the person standing beside you, and see others doing the same. Hundreds of thousands of people, all one family, taken out of slavery because of a promise made to your ancestor long ago. You see your leader – someone you doubted at first – ascend the mountain. The grandeur of the scene is stunning, and as G-d himself begins to speak, it becomes overwhelming. You, and the whole nation, cowers, and begs for your leader to take over. Despite all this, you become His people, with promises of a land of your own, if only you recognize his leadership.
This is the story of awe told by Parshat Yitro, the direct narrative of the giving of the torah. The offer of good life and a land. This week’s portion, Parshat Mishpatim, however, is a more subtle, quiet, form of accepting the torah. This is not the honeymoon story of becoming G-d’s people and living autonomously, this is the tale of all the obligations, from big to little, that come with it.
The laws of damages, slave ownership, and money-lending are hardly romantic, but they teach us an important lesson when taken as a whole (not to mention the many moral lessons we can learn from each individual commandment). The existence of a system of civil laws, presented as an integral part of our religious code and practice, demonstrates one of the most vital tenets of the Jewish religion. In Judaism, there is no part of our lives not touched, in some way, by G-d. Though some parts – prayer and the study of torah, for example – are more obviously connected, even the most arcane parts of our existence can be elevated by acting according to halacha, as shown clearly in this week’s parsha. However, Parshat Mishpatim is not not the only place this principle is demonstrated.
The third chapter of Brachot, the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, is dedicated to a dicussion on the laws of Shema – in relation to going to the bathroom. It’s the combination of our highest ideals and lowest functions, and allows us to understand the breadth of our religious experience. We can never separate entirely between the spiritual and the secular, because, as we are reminded, our entire lives are spent constantly engaged in both. And yes, most moments are not like the giving of the Torah and Sinai; they are far more prosaic than that. But that is not to say they are not spiritual. Even when going in to the bathroom, we can take in to account what G-d wants from us, and how to best conduct ourselves in every part of our day to day lives. And it is that – the synthesis of all parts of our lives in to one elevated whole – that is truly the lesson of Parshat Mishpatim.
Student Studying in Migdal Oz