From a literary point of view, the emphasis of the Torah now changes. Following Revelation and the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah moves away from narrative and continues directly with laws and legislation for the Israelites. This section of the Torah is known as Sefer HaBrit - "The Book of the Covenant." The word mishpatim means "rules" or "ordinances," coming from the Hebrew meaning "to judge." This parasha contains 53 distinct different mitzvot (there are 613 mitzvot in the entire Torah), including civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws. Specific laws in the parashah relate to sacrifices, slavery, accidental death, kidnapping, treatment of parents and responsibility for animals, and includes the famous (and usually misunderstood) Biblical statement of "talion": eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth... (Ex. 21:24). Towards the end of the parshah, the calendar for the three festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) is established, and then the people reaffirm their commitment to the covenant. Moses offers a sacrifice, and then he, Aaron and his sons Nadav and Abihu, and 70 other elders go onto the mountain again, and there they are treated to an extraordinary vision of God. Then Moses goes back up to the top of the mountain, and remains there for forty days.
Last week's Parsha told of the dramatic revelation of God to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. It was a spiritual trip so powerful that every Jew literally had an out-of-body experience. The ultimate "wow!"
This week's follow-up, Mishpatim, is one of the longest Torah portions, containing an exhaustive list of over 50 separate mitzvot. Included are laws regarding murder, kidnapping, cursing authority, personal injury and property damage, occult practices, helping the poor and vulnerable, returning lost objects, and alleviating the suffering of animals.
The juxtaposition between the two Parshas is striking: After the spiritual high of Mount Sinai, why would God "bring us down" (so to speak) with all these details of daily life?! It's like being all heated up and then thrown into a cold shower. The two Parshas, it seems, are 180 degrees apart.
Actually, they're two sides of the same coin. The spiritual high of Sinai is gratifying, but it doesn't solve one problem of the world in which we live. Spirituality is not achieved by meditating alone on a mountaintop or by learning in an out-of-the-way monastery. Jewish spirituality comes through grappling with the mundane world in a way that uplifts and elevates.
Jews don't retreat from life, we elevate it. On Friday night, we raise the cup of wine and use it - not to get drunk - but to make Kiddush and sanctify the Sabbath day. Spirituality, says Judaism, is to be found in the kitchen, the office, the subway . . .
God instructs every Jew that if he has a Jewish slave working for him, then after six years he is to be set free. On the surface, it seems like when the seventh year arrives the slave would eagerly, happily, and enthusiastically run from his master's house into his new found freedom. But this just isn't how a slave feels. The reason for this is that the longer a person is under the "rule" of someone or something else, the less belief he has that he can actually make it on his own.
One of the most debilitating aspects of any form of enslavement is that it robs a person of his self-worth and self-confidence. He becomes enslaved physically, emotionally and mentally. But the fact the God commands the slave to be set free in the seventh year demonstrates an incredible and powerful seed that God plants within all of us. And that is knowing, without question, that we all have the ability to make it on our own without this master.
Whether you realize it or not, each and every one of us are enslaved to someone or to something. Whether it's continuing to stay in at a job we dislike, in a relationship that's unhealthy, engage in destructive behaviours, or need to watch hours of television in order to escape the thoughts of the day - we all choose to be slaves.
While no one wants to be controlled, this enslavement is far better than we fear what will become of us if we chose to leave. The bottom line is that within all of us is a powerful and driving belief that questions if we really can make it on our own without this master. And although the enslavement is hard, frustrating, and painful, we don't leave because we doubt our ability to make it in un-chartered waters.
But the exact opposite is true. Whatever unhealthy situation controls a part of your life and keeps you from blossoming and becoming great, then also know that you can walk away and make it without this master. And when you do muster the strength to leave and fight the inner voice that questions your ability to succeed, then the battle is 99% won. Because when you commit to being free, you just have to hand the ball over to God and He will give you everything you need to make it.
We learn another rationale for resting on Shabbat from this week's parsha.
In last week’s Torah class, Talia pointed out the difference between the Shabbat rationale in Yitro and the one in this week’s parsha. This was a very astute observation on her part.
In Mishpatim, which is primarily concerned with civil and moral laws, the Torah teaches:
"Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed" (Exodus 23:12).
This verse is strikingly different from the presentation of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. Here, Shabbat observance is part of ethical and humanitarian living. In the verses preceding this discussion of Shabbat, the Torah warns against subverting the rights of the needy (verse 6) and oppressing the stranger (verse 9). This theme of social justice and liberty from oppression is also linked with Shabbat in Moses' reiteration of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy:
"Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave... or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:13–15).
In this beautiful passage, Shabbat rest becomes a taste of the redemption from slavery in Egypt.
Just as God saved us from the unrelenting toil of Egyptian servitude, we must create a society in which our servants and animals find rest from their labours.
So why do we rest on Shabbat? The Torah portions of this week and last illustrate the multifaceted nature of Jewish ritual. Shabbat observance evokes two important themes in Jewish theology:
and God's Salvation.
In both cases, God's actions serve as a model for our own. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we express our faith in God as Creator. Six days a week, we engage in partnership with God as builders of the world around us. On Shabbat we rest and reflect on God's ultimate role as Architect of the Cosmos. By refraining from work on Shabbat, we also express our heritage as redeemed slaves. The experience of liberation from work and weekday burdens reminds us of the importance of overcoming oppression in the world.
The very end of this week’s parsha brings us back to the drama of last week’s parshah and the revelation at Mount Sinai. In Chapter 24, G-d calls Moses to ascend the mountain. This time Aaron, his sons and the 70 elders are also called up, though they are not allowed to go as high up the mountain as Moses.
We also find the famous reply of the Children of Israel “na‘aseh ve-nishma –
We will do and we will listen [to G-d’s commandments].”
The verse is classically interpreted to mean: "first we will do or practice these commandments, and only then, thereby, we will come to understand them." The root 'sh.m.- shin mem' allows for all these renditions, because it can mean listen, harken, obey, do or understand. "Na'aseh venishmah" -- like "Amen to that!" -- is a way of saying "yes!" to life. We are so used to saying, "yes, but ..." that it might seem normal, wise or at least prudent to do so. This week's parsha encourages us to cultivate radical agreement and enthusiasm. "Yes" to life and to God -- no ifs, ands or buts. "Yes" to Torah, even if we don't understand it all yet. "Yes" to wherever it leads us. Some things -- in fact, some of the most important things in life -- cannot be fully understood before they are assented to. While you can select a partner wisely, you can never know what marriage will be like before you say, "I do." Checklists and cost-benefit analyses are inadequate, if not irrelevant. No amount of research or weekend babysitting can prepare you for what it means to have a child. These relationships, like our relationships with God or Torah, can't be neatly mapped or easily explained; they must be experienced. Life's biggest decisions are leaps of faith and, in Abraham Joshua Heschel's phrase, "leaps of action," too. If you wait until you are completely ready, until you have all the knowledge and tools to "do" them, you will wait forever. Covenant -- whether under the chuppah or at Mount Sinai -- is not a single event or decision; it is ongoing discovery, awakening and growth. The journey starts with a committed "yes." Covenant, radical agreement, "na'aseh venishma," "amen to that" -- all these phrases mean "love without a net." A profound and daring "yes" should not be offered lightly or blindly. The cause and stakes and partner must be worthy. When they are, unreserved commitment fosters not just love and generosity but also freedom and security. There is power in "yes." Strength comes with and from this kind of commitment. Doors and possibilities open for "yes" that will never open for "maybe." It may feel safer to weigh your options than to measure your growth against a declared goal, but actually, quite quickly, it is less safe. Staying undecided saps you and distances you from your purpose. The prophet Elijah challenged the people of Israel, "How long will you straddle [or hobble between] two opinions?" (I Kings 18:21). Imagine what we could do collectively with all the time and energy we now spend in ambivalence about holy causes. It would be nothing short of miraculous. At the end of this week's Torah portion, the Elders indeed experience a miracle as a result of their radical assent: "They saw the God of Israel and under His feet there was the likeness of sapphire pavement, like the very sky for purity.... They beheld God." (Exodus 24:10-11).
The commentators disagree as to whether the episode described in our parsha is part of the original revelation described in Yitro, or if it is a separate episode being described. Regardless of when this passage actually occurred, it allows us to revisit the issue of revelation and spirituality that is so central to the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
What does it mean to see G-d and to experience revelation?
What was so special about ma’amad Har Sinai?
Many of the commentators who discuss these issues focus their attention on a curious verse:
“[G-d] did not set forth His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld G-d and they ate and drank” (Ex. 24:11). Two questions in particular
come to mind:
1) What does it mean for G-d to set forth, or not set forth, His hand to someone?
2) Why did the leaders eat and drink and how is that detail relevant to the first half of the verse?
A fascinating answer to these questions comes from R. Ovadia Sforno (1470-1550), the great Italian commentator. He maintains that the nevuah, the revelatory experience, of the leaders of the Israelites was utterly different from other revelatory experiences in the Bible. Normally, moments of revelation and prophecy are characterized by yad Hashem – “G-d’s hand.” During these moments the prophet loses his or her normal capacities and senses.
An example of this is seen in the book of Samuel where we see Saul strip naked while prophesying (I Samuel 19:24). The Sforno explains that opposed to all other prophetic experiences described in the Tanach, the experience at Har Sinai was NOT characterized by G-d setting forth His hand on the leaders. There was no suspension of their senses. This is evidenced by the fact that they were able to eat and drink – in other words, to go about their normal daily activities – while experiencing revelation and heightened spirituality.
Sforno’s explanation carries a lot of relevance for us. It is true that we are no longer able to experience prophecy or direct Divine revelation. Nonetheless, the revelation at Har Sinai serves as a model for us. Intense spirituality does not have to occur as isolated, extreme moments. Just as the leaders of the Jewish people were able to experience God while going about their everyday activities, so can we. Spirituality can – and should – take place in our regular lives. The challenge that ma’amad Har Sinai puts forth, then, is to be sensitive to the Godly and spiritual moments in our lives.