Parshat Mishpatim

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An architect, an electrician and a lawyer are discussing whose profession came first. “Well, look at the Bible,” says the architect – “hills, valleys and seas were all designed and created at the very beginning of the world.

“Yes,” replied the electrician, “but before that G-d created light!”

“You are both wrong,” answered the lawyer. “You are forgetting that before both of those there was total chaos! Who do you think created that?!”

The Parsha this week is a lawyer’s paradise, full of criminal law, civil law, torts, etc all in great detail – the basis of our justice system, expanded, expounded and extrapolated in the Mishna and the Talmud.

There is something which appears quite strange though when we look at the juxtaposition of all these legal, mundane and materialistic details with the most amazing Divine revelation in history we witnessed in last week’s Torah reading. The transition from the Divine and spiritual events at Sinai to the nitty-gritty details of theft and damages seems very abrupt. Is there an explanation for their placement so close together?

Our Sages tell us that there is a very good reason for it. At Sinai the Jews reached levels of kedusha – of holiness and purity never before reached by mankind. With that came a danger, that they and their descendants may miss the point … we may think that G-d wants us to be malachim – angels. Many people certainly feel this way — that to be pure and spiritual we must be distant from the world, miles above the ignoble details of everyday life. However Judaism does not recommend that we lead an ascetic lifestyle, nor that we keep our distance from the world we live in … in fact it is just the opposite.  We are encouraged to see G-d’s fingerprints up close in the wonders of nature, in the mountains and the valleys, the sky and the sea. We are encouraged to work in the world for six days, and then to rest on the seventh, to engage with the physical world we were born into, and to endeavour to recognise the spirituality latent within it.

The Torah shifts from Divine revelation straight into the rough and tumble of everyday life because that is where spirituality is to be found. G-d is not only found up the mountain, He is found in the care we give the orphan and the widow, the sick and homeless. He is in the courtroom where bribery is refused and where the poor receive justice alongside the rich. G-d is there in hospital when we care for the injured, in shul when we reject idols, and in the kitchen when we separate meat and milk.

For the Torah was not given to angels – but to us. Reaching lofty spiritual heights is a wonderful goal — but here G-d is teaching us how we reach true heights — not by escaping, but by transforming the world around us into a G-dly place, by caring  for those less fortunate and by living in harmony with others around us. In the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, “G-d lives where we let Him in.”

This Shabbat is Parshat Shekalim, when we read of the annual compulsory donation the Jewish people made to the Temple of a single half-shekel coin. The same half-shekel amount was given by everyone, from the very poorest to the very wealthiest – and that carries a deep message: No matter how many assets we may or may not own, in G-d’s eyes we are all equal. The message runs even deeper … how can we make this half shekel “whole,” — by giving it to charity.

We will have opportunities in the upcoming weeks to live these ideals we talk and learn about. One of the Purim obligations is to give charity, one of the Pesach obligations is to host at the Seder those who are hungry or needy …

These are just reminders to us of the obligations we have to be charitable every single day, with our money or with our time, with our patience and with our smile. How then do we reach the top of Mount Sinai … by the small, random acts of goodness and kindness with which we fill the world. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and  director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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