- The contrast between the two parshiyot is startling…
Last week’s parsha, Yitro, records the scene of Matan Torah- perhaps the most powerfully inspiring spiritual moment in Jewish history- the moment of revelation when G-d Himself appears to the Jewish nation, surrounded by tremendous pomp and circumstance. This week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, in contrast presents a list of commandments, lacking any drama or excitement- commandments that even seem to be particularly mundane and “dry”.
And yet, the Torah deliberately connects the two parshiyot through its opening words this week:
” ואלה המשפטים”, “and these are the laws”. Rashi quotes a well known Midrash that whenever the Torah opens a section of text with the word “ואלה”, “and these”, the Torah means to connect this new section with the previous one in some way. In this case, posits Rashi, the Torah teaches that just as the mitzvot in last week’s parsha were given to Am Yisrael at Har Sinai, so too the mitzvot in this week’s parsha were given at Har Sinai as well.
Perhaps we can go a step further- and suggest that the Torah means to connect, not only the specific mitzvot in Yitro and Mishpatim, but also the religious experiences that these parshiyot represent. We all strive for moments of revelation and intense spirituality, the “high” moments when we feel the deep presence of G-d, and are inspired to become better versions of ourselves. Realistically, however, such moments are far and few between. The Yitro experience is crucial and important, yet it is fleeting. To preserve that experience, we must channel the positive energy from those moments into the Mishpatim experience, into the day in and day out service to Hashem, through the many daily Mitzvot that He has given to us. It is only when the Yitro experience is channeled into the framework of the Mishpatim experience, the seemingly mundane daily commandments – that we ultimately begin to move on a path of sincere and meaningful Avodat Hashem.
We spoke last week about the importance of presenting G-d to our children as a kind and loving Father, who yearns for a relationship with them and cares deeply about them. As a continuation on that theme, we are confronted this week with the myriad of mitzvot that we as Jews are commanded to keep. How can we impart to our children the vision of Hashem as a loving father in the face of His many restrictions governing all aspects of our lives? How can we contend with the often-felt sense that G-d’s commandments are suffocating, and restricting? To sharpen the issue a bit more- in today’s world, which champions the concept of autonomy and individualism, how do we raise our children with a respect for Torah and Mitzvot, which are based upon the concepts of authority and submission?
These are challenging questions, to which there are no simple answers. However, I believe one possible direction can be found by building upon the suggestion we made last week- namely by reframing the issue, and by cultivating within our children a deeper understanding of G-d and His Mitzvot.
On a basic level, Mitzvot are, of course, commandments- obligations directed to us by a higher authority that we are expected to keep. Taking it a step further, Rav Soloveitchik often writes of the important role that submission plays in Judaism- that each of us must submit our wants and needs to a higher authority, thereby committing an act of “tzimtzum”, a “withdrawing” of ourselves and our natural desires, for the sake of G-d and in deference to Him. We cannot deny the fact that certain aspects of Torah and Mitzvot limit our freedom and require the sacrifice of our natural desires and wants.
However, Mitzvot are so much more than that- something that can only be understood when viewed within the overall framework of our relationship with Hashem.
All relationships carry specific social rules and guidelines. Friendships and peer relationships, marriage, sibling relationships, work relationships, all contain certain boundaries and expectations that define the nature of the bond. And when it comes to relationships where the level of authority is uneven- for example, a parent/child relationship, or a boss/worker relationship- the guidelines and rules within those relationships will naturally be uneven as well.
However, if the bond is a healthy one- if the parent/child relationship, for example, is built upon the deep love and genuine care that the parents have for their children, and the parents successfully relay those foundations to their children- then all other aspects of the relationship will be viewed within the prism of that love and affection. Of course, given their role and responsibility, parents will need to establish rules and guidelines for their children. Some of those rules will make sense to the child, while others will not, given the limited perspective that the child has in comparison to the parent. There will inevitably be times when the child will feel stifled when he or she will get upset and question the rules and the authority of the parents. If the parents, however, are able to convey to the child an understanding that all these rules are based on the unending love that they have for them, that they are designed to protect them and to allow for the cultivation of a deep relationship with them- if the rules arise from within the framework of an existing, loving relationship, and are used as a way to continue to strengthen that relationship- then the moments of frustration can be overcome, and the fundamental connection can prevail.
It is this vision, this model, that we need to present to our children as well regarding G-d and His mitzvot. G-d is our Father in Heaven, who loves us and desires a deep relationship with us- and it is from this place that the mitzvot emerge. They are not simply obligations, but rather opportunities. The Baal Shem Tov is said to have noted that the word Mitzvah comes from the Aramaic word “צוות”, which means “connection” — because G-d’s commandments emanate from within the existing connection that we already have with Hashem, and are ultimately intended to strengthen our all of our connections: with ourselves, with each other, and with G-d Himself. As we noted above, it is specifically within this defined framework, within the Mishpatim experience, that these connections can develop and flourish in a consistent and meaningful way.
We might not understand all the rules, given our limited perspective of the world and the reality around us. We might be tempted to question G-d and His authority at times — but if the strong foundation is there, and we if take into account the overall relationship, then the fundamental connection will, once again, hopefully, prevail.
This is not a simple message to transmit to our children- and of course, how we convey this idea may differ from child to child. I would suggest, however, that there are two considerations that are crucial to promoting this sense within our kids.
- The best model of our children’s relationship to Hashem is the relationship that they have with us, their parents. If we are successful, as parents, in building a connection with our children that is based on love and concern, as opposed to authority — one where the rules are seen within an overarching context of affection and genuine caring, then it will be easier for our children to transfer that experience to their relationship with Hashem.
- The most important ways that we educate our children is through our own example. If we relate to the mitzvot as opportunities rather than obligations — if our children see that we view the mitzvot within the context of an overall bond with the Almighty- they will be more likely to experience them that way as well. If we approach the world of mitzvot as providing a framework for consistency and constancy in our Avodat Hashem, rather than as a burden, then we will more successfully relay that message to our children. Of course, there will be bad days, or moments where we will struggle and ask questions. But if the fundamental connection is there, then our relationship with Hashem will persevere- and act as a model for our children in their relationship with Him as well.
Our religious experience is made up of two main components- the spiritual “high” of the Yitro experience, and the accompanying rigid framework of the Mishpatim experience. When we are able to merge the two- and cultivate that balance within our children through a nuanced understanding of their relationship with their Father in Heaven- then we will be able to raise them as thoughtful and dedicated ovdei Hashem.