Parshat Mishpatim (5771)

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This week’s parsha is filled with many detailed laws, employment law, tort law, damages and reparation, judicial law and so on, the basis for volumes of  Talmudic discussion and in turn a large part of the body of Jewish law.

Even if you do not pay close attention to the details of the laws themselves, it is fascinating to note the interesting juxtaposition of the rational and the mundane with the esoteric and the spiritual. The Jews have only just experienced the heady heights of Divine revelation. They have been protected in plague-infested Egypt, liberated and escorted through the “waters” of the Yam Suf, to merit the greatest revelation of all time – G-d’s appearance to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. This was the closest Man was ever going to get to G-d, and that desert generation merited incredible spiritual highs.

However, the Torah reading which immediately follows the Sinai Revelation delves straight into laws of everyday life: how we treat our workers, how much liability we have for objects we hire or borrow etc.

What is the connection between the two extremes: the Divine and G-dly on the one hand, and the practical and mundane on the other?

The answer is an important one.

At Mount Sinai something radical happened in the world. Prior to Sinai, there was a clear division between the two worlds of spirituality and physicality – never the twain shall meet. When G-d descended on Mount Sinai and gave us His Torah that division was removed. The world after Sinai was still a physical world – but it could now be affected by and imbued with spirituality. An animal skin used for tefillin now becomes holy, a piece of parchment used for a mezuzah now becomes holy, coins and banknotes used for charity now become holy.

Beginning at Sinai, that became the mission of the Jewish people – to live in a physical world and make it holy. To use physical objects, and by our actions make those very objects holy; to turn our workspace into a spiritual space, our home into a sanctuary and our time on this Earth into a spiritual journey filled with purpose and meaning.

Now we can look again at the laws listed in this parsha and understand how they follow perfectly on from the preceding spiritual events at Sinai.

At Mount Sinai the message was made clear – everything we do in this world can be used to serve the One Above. It might be paying your staff on time, returning a lost object to its rightful owner, being impartial in judging a court case, or not eating that delicious cheeseburger – whether it is a logical and practical law, or one we do not understand, these are all expressions of spirituality, and of a deep realisation that within every physical experience is a spiritual opportunity – it is our responsibility, when confronted with that opportunity, to make the right choice.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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