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Parhat Mishpatim: Searching for the Essence of Jewish Life

02/12/2023 08:29:56 PM


Rabbi Moshe Rudin


I can’t worship a G-d whom I can understand.

I can’t practice a religion that I can explain.

-Menachem Mendel Morgernstern

The Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859)

This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, contains one of the largest collections of laws in the entire Torah.  But what is Jewish law?  The description below is a synopsis of the teaching of the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, the great physician/philosopher of the middle ages; but ultimately, perhaps no explanation, no matter how brilliant and clear can truly explain.  Join me in this journey as we search for the essence of Torah and of our own identities as Jews. 

In English, we have many words for “law”.  We talk about laws, regulations, statutes, ordinances and many more terms that are basically interchangeable.  In Torah terms, there are two basic words for law and each has a very specific meaning.

Mishpatim (“ordinances”)- these are laws with very specific reasons that are provided by the Torah.  One example is the law of Ma’akeh (parapet)- 

When you build a new house, you shall place a parapet (fence) around the roof so that you do not cause bloodshed in your house should someone fall.

-Deuteronomy 22:8

These laws serve a clear ethical and moral purpose.  Many of them are common sense for a civilization which, like Jewish civilization, places the highest values on life, freedom, mutual responsibility for everyone’s welfare and kindness.

Eyduyot (“testimonies”- These are laws meant to embody milestones of our history as well as the central pillars of our faith.  Keeping Shabbat is a testimony that we should see the world as a gift given to humanity out of the Creator’s love.  The Mitzvah of Matzah on Passover, living in booths on Sukkot and all of the other Mitzvot of memory- such as Tzitzit as a reminder of the commandments, Tefillin as a reminder of love for G-d and for each other- are all in this category.

Chukim (“statutes”)- these are the laws for which there is no explanation.  Brit Milah (circumcision), Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), Shatnez (not mingling linen and wool in a garment), and Kilyayim (not mixing seeds or raising animals together) are examples.  Many explanations and theories exist to try to find the meaning of these laws, but they are considered to be Gezerot HaMelech- beyond our ability to truly understand.  We do them because they are G-d’s Mitzvot.

What are the Mitzvot all about?  What is their purpose and meaning?  The Kabbalah explains that they are the means by which we effect the restoration and repair of this broken world.  The Rabbi of Ger explains that each Mitzvah is a pathway to becoming close to G-d.  The Torah says simply that the Mitzvot are the way to holiness: You shall be holy, for I, HaShem your G-d am holy. (Leviticus 22)

I bring all of the above for one reason. Learning about and doing the Mitzvot does something that cannot be explained.  Living a Jewish life opens and deepens the heart in a way that no analysis or rationale can even begin to approach.   We can try to figure it all out as much as we like.  But the act of lighting Shabbat candles, wrapping in Tzitzit or laying tefillin are transformative experiences unto themselves.  When we turn toward the west as we sing L’cha Dodi and bow to welcome the Shabbat Bride, something incredible comes into the world- something beautiful.  There is no other way to explain it or describe it.  

And the same goes for the Mitzvot bein Adam L’Chavero- the Mitzvot pertaining to our relationships with others.  Being there for someone else, giving Tzedaka, visiting the sick, rejoicing with the bride and groom, comforting the mourner: all these are acts of kindness and sacred friendship infinitely worthwhile in and of themselves.  But doing them Jewishly gives them wings.  

Professor Eli Wiesel, whom I studied with for only two short semesters back in college but who will always be my rebbe, described a scene in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, where he took part in a the celebration of Simchat Torah with Russian Jews under the threatening eyes of the KGB back in the days of the Soviet Union.  Among the older generation that celebrated what they remembered before the anti-Semitic crackdown took Judaism away from them was a young girl, dancing blissfully with the Torah. 

She had never had the opportunity to study Hebrew, learn a word of Torah or experience her heritage.  But her eyes shone with holiness and joy.  Professor Wiesel could see that in some hidden way she had found the path of holiness and the presence of the divine.  You have never been allowed to celebrate a holiday or learn a word of Hebrew or what it’s all about, he asked her.  Why are you here?  

The answer she gave him shook him profoundly as it did me when I heard him tell the story. 

I’m here, she said simply, because I love to dance.

That is what Judaism is.  It’s a dance.  It is something worthwhile and beautiful for no other reason than for itself.  And when you dance, you can hear and feel the music in a way that no one else can.  And that music is singing in you right now and that dance is waiting for you to take that first joyful step, right now, in whatever way you can-

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784