Judaism Cannot Be Squeezed into a Synagogue-Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim 5774

Immediately following one of the most monumental and influential events in Jewish history, the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim opens with the verse, “And these are the ordinances that you shall place before them.” (Exodus 21:1) The chapter that follows elaborates on numerous civil laws, including Jewish bondsman, manslaughter, and guardianship over property, etc. Rashi, the classic Biblical commentator provides an interesting explanation on the word “And these are the ordinances…” in the beginning of our portion. He writes, “Where it says, “And these,” [it means that] it is adding to what has been previously stated.” (Tanchuma Mishpatim 3) We learn from here that there is an intimate connection between these seemingly mundane civil ordinances and the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. But what is that intimate connection? How can we possibly link the giving of the Ten Commandments, the greatest manifestation and revelation of spirituality that ever was, with the laws relating to trivial everyday matters?

The juxtaposition of these two matters are not coincidental, rather they have much to teach us for our times. Nachmanides (d.1270), a leading medieval Jewish scholar, offers an insightful explanation to the textual structure which also begins to shed light on this idea. He writes, “The midrash (Shemot Rabba 30:15) writes that the entire Torah rests on justice (mishpat) and it is for this reason that the “mishpatim” – laws of social justice – are juxtaposed to the Ten Commandments. This parsha simply elaborates on the laws that have already been listed in the Ten Commandments: idolatry, respect and care for parents, murder and adultery.” According to this explanation, the placing of these verses becomes clear, social justice is a fundamental and critical element of the Torah and of the vision of the role of the Jewish people. However, though the textual difficulty has been resolved, our original question still remains: How are these seemingly mundane laws a continuation of the all-spiritual experience of Mount Sinai?

One answer to this question can be found in a public lecture delivered in 1972 by one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of the 20th Century, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik. In this discussion, he touches upon the spiritual significance that Judaism lends to civil law while addressing in a broader context the “unique experience of Judaism.” Explains Rav Soloveitchik, one of the most unique and fundamental aspects of the Jewish experience is in how it relates to matters of spirituality and holiness—in fact, every facet of life can be channeled for the holy. Judaism fundamentally disagrees with the premise that there is an inflexible distinction between the worlds of holy and secular and that never the ‘twain shall meet. Spirituality and Godliness can be imbued into anyplace and situation if a person desires to. Writes Rav Soloveitchik, “What is sacred and profane in Judaism depends upon man’s actions. If man so desires, God will abide in his office, on the assembly line, or in the halls of Congress. No boundaries will keep God out if man wants his presence. But, if man does not want his presence, God will absent Himself even from the synagogue, even from the Holy of Holies…Judaism embraces the totality of life, not just areas of ritual concern. The volumes of “Choshen Mishpat” deal with labor and business ethics, legal procedures…Judaism cannot be squeezed into a synagogue. The synagogue is just an institution and Judaism’s claims on the totality of human life includes the office, the factory, the kitchen…”(Shiurei Harav, pg. 131-132) The structure is there, however, it is entirely up to us to let God in to these other facets of our lives. As the Kotzker Rabbi told his students, “Where is God? Wherever you let Him in.”

With these ideas in mind, we see that the civil laws elaborated on in Parshat Mishpatim are not a descent from the lofty and spiritual to the lowly and mundane, but rather they are one continuous conversation from Parshat Yitro. This week’s portion essentially provides a continuation of the Mount Sinai experience, albeit from the view of the everyday man and his common place experiences. Spirituality need not be confined to certain places and situations, they can be found in any time and place and that it is specifically within the seemingly mundane that you can so acutely find God’s presence. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, eloquently stated, “The greatness of Judaism is not simply in its noble vision of a free, just and compassionate society, but in the way it brings this vision down to earth in detailed legislation. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.” (Covenant and Conversation, Parshat Mishpatim 5773)

May we merit the strength and vision to bring God out from the synagogue and into the dynamic experiences of our everyday lives.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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