Friday, February 5, 2016

Parashat Mishpatim

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah Portion is Parashat Mishpatim. Traditionally, commandments in the Torah are seen as being in one of two categories: chukim or mishpatim. The word mishpatim is understood to mean “laws”, the rules that we are given, but we probably could have figured out on our own. This usually means ethical laws, like “Don’t kill or steal”. The word chukim, on the other hand, is understood to mean “ordinances,” the rules that we are given to help us serve God, which might not always make sense. This usually means ritual commandments, like the laws concerning how a priest should properly perform sacrifices. So the fact that this parasha is called mishpatim already tells us something about the sort of commandments we’re going to see in this portion.
            The portion comes in the Torah right after the receiving of the Ten Commandments, which contains both chukim (keep the Sabbat) and mishpatim (don’t steal or kill). However, the great medieval commentator, Rashi, claims that the written chronology of the Torah doesn’t necessarily reflect the order in which these things actually happened. So, he says, this reading of the mishpatim actually precedes the giving of the Ten Commandments. This is a flashback, basically. At the end of this parasha the people say, “We will do and we will hear,” (Exodus 24:7), which had caused a lot of confusion over the years. Don’t we usually hear the instructions first, and then commit to do them? It’s important to note that, according to Rashi’s reading that this portion is actually taking place before the Ten Commandments, the people have not yet personally heard from God yet. This means that when the people say, “We will do and we will hear,” they really haven’t actually yet heard God at all. They’ve only heard Moses report on what God has said, and they’re expressing an interest in having a more personal connection with God.  Rashi says that what the people mean is, “We will do the rules you have given us, and we will hear the additional ones that you will give us now.” Some laws were given before Sinai, and we call these Noahide laws, rules that are good for everyone to follow, even if they are not Jewish. Although the word mishpatim usually refers to the laws of Sinai, from this portion, it could be an example of the people accepting the mishpatim, the rational laws of how to behave like a good person, and saying, “Now we’re ready to hear the rules that maybe won’t make sense to us, because we trust in God.”
            In the same section of the portion it says that Moses “wrote these words,” and it is upon this verse that the tradition that Moses wrote the Torah is based. Rashi says, he wrote everything from Creation to this moment, including the laws given at Marah, which aren’t actually explicitly stated in our Torah. We just know that before Sinai, people had received some commandments at Marah (a place where the Israelites camped at one point in the journey from the Exodus). Therefore, the people are not only saying, “We will do” to the commandments given so far, and “We will hear” to rest they know are coming, but are responding to the narrative of all of history thus far. They are being reminded of all that God has done for the world and humanity since the beginning of time, and they are saying, “We will follow all of God’s commandments, we are ready for the Revelation.”
            As modern Reform Jews, we don’t always follow all the chukim. We do care more about the mishpatim, the rules that govern our regular behavior and help guide us to be good people. No one observes the laws of sacrifice anymore, but as Reform Jews we may also not observe the laws of Shabbat or Kashrut, either. What would it mean for us, “to do and to hear?” Maor Va-Shemesh, a nineteenth century Chasidic commentator who more or less agrees with Rashi’s reading of this parasha, adds a helpful insight: when the Torah says “On this day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai,” the significance of saying “this” and not “on that day” is to teach that we should feel as if the words of Torah and God are new to us each day. Every day is a new revelation, a new Sinai. This is the part we can relate to. When we say, “we will do and we will hear,” we may not mean “we will follow ALL of God’s commandments,” as the ancient Israelites did, but we mean, “We will do all the mishpatim that make us better people, and we will listen for God’s guidance in our day to day lives.” We mean, “We will inspect the tradition and find the things that are meaningful for us and help us observe the rational laws.” We mean, “I want to be part of this chain of tradition that teaches us to continuously study and interpret Torah in order to find its relevance to the modern day.”
            In the beginning of the Torah portion, God tells the laws regarding a Hebrew slave. The Israelites have just been freed from Egyptian slavery, and should now be serving no master but God. But, financial hardship might make it such that a person must sell their self into slavery. The Israelites are not to keep their slaves forever, and are to deal fairly with their slaves, especially when it is time to let their slave go. However, if a slave wants to stay with their master forever, they may commit themself by allowing their master to more or less staple their ear to the door post. Tradition teaches this is because to choose to be a slave to another human is to revoke the statement, “We will do and we will hear.” Part of being Jewish is listening for God, hearing the ways in which we must each grapple with the commandments and keep rituals because they enrich our lives. Giving up one’s autonomy is an affront to the God who freed us and it is a way of saying one no longer wants to be alert to the further and finer intimations of God’s will, but would rather become robots who fulfill lives of only doing what others ask. As a result of this offense against the slave’s ability to “hear,” the ear, the source of hearing, is mutilated.
            Of course, this is also a practice that is now completely dead, as there are no more slaves in Jewish cultures. However, the warning remains: a life without trying to understand God on your own terms is a life of slavery to other humans’ understandings. Approach each day as one with the possibility of revelation, and say to the world, to yourself, to God, “I will do and I will hear!” And thus may each day bring you a deeper understanding of the world, yourself, and God. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


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