Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Connecting Sinai with everyday living (Parshat Mishpatim)

TRANSCRIPT

This year I am reading Parshat Mishpatim with sadness.

I ask myself in front of all of you are we fulfilling the mandate of this parsha, which focuses on our responsibility to create a just and civil society?

We who set ourselves to be the most committed to Judaism continue to flout safety measures that were enacted to save lives.

We see images of hundreds of people attending weddings in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, where many people become infected and unwittingly act as super spreaders to elderly members of their family, their children and everyone they are in contact with.

We see thousands gathering for the funerals of great rabbinical leaders. Is this how we honor the lives and legacies of these tzaddikim? By knowingly flouting the law and spreading a devastating virus?

Yeshiva break is celebrated by thousands making a pilgrimage to Orlando & South Florida only to be found crowded and unmasked in restaurants and other public venues.

Our hospitals are flooded with so many people who are ill and in need of care.

So, no, I do not think that we are fulfilling the mandate of this week’s parsha.

The very first words of Mishpatim give us a clue to how important it is to be kind, thoughtful careful and just:

ואלה המשפטים” – “And these are the laws”.

The parsha that speaks about detailed laws begins with the letter Vav, the word “and”, indicating that the laws of our parsha do not stand alone.

No, the laws are a continuation of last week’s parsha, Yitro, in which we received  the Torah.

The laws of mundane living are part of the Divine revelation. It is about imbuing the ideals of the Torah in the everyday.

The Talmud tells us in the name of Rav Yehuda, “One who wishes to be pious should study the laws of נזיקין, the laws of torts, the laws of a civil society.”

That is why so many begin their study of the vast sea of Talmud with the tractates of Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra, tractates which are based on the laws discussed in this week’s Torah portion.

Laws relating to the vulnerable members of society with kindness; laws of financial ethics; property management and capital punishment. Laws regarding our responsibility to heal the sick; to behave ethically in business, and so much more.

Ultimately, the Torah obligates us to transform ourselves into a ממלכת כהנים – a priestly nation – וגוי קדוש, a holy society. This can only happen when we create the kind of society that is careful about how we treat one another.

When will we finally learn that the true manifestation of serving God is found in the details of  laws like “ורפא ירפא”, of making sure that we and those around us are healthy?

When will we finally heed the directives of respected medical professionals with the same mandated responsibility of “נעשה ונשמע, of dutifully obeying and only questioning later?

I am sad as I read Parshat Mishpatim this year because while in so many ways our service to God has increased and become more committed, it is clear that we have forgotten the message of the juxtaposition between receiving the Torah with our responsibility to create a civil society that looks after the needs and well-being of others.

Parshat Mishpatim ends with another revelation of God

Nachmanides points out that this revelation is different from the one found in Yitro prior to receiving the Torah.

Unlike the prior, this revelation has no barriers between God and the Jewish people.

For the revelation of Misphatim is not rooted in the theoretical, it is anchored in the holiness found in the mundane — in the every day.

May we merit to experience that pristine engagement with God internalizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim, fully engaging in our responsibility in building a holy society once again.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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