Parshat Mishpatim: What Jewish Life at CoM (And Everywhere) Can Be

Shabbat Shalom!!

If you travel with me to last Shabbat, you might recall that we stood together for the recitation of the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. Out of all ten commandments, one of the hardest Mitzvot for our daily lives is Commandment #4: זָכ֛וֹר֩ אֶת־י֥֨וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖֜ת לְקַדְּשֽׁ֗וֹ, Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy. Because of this commandment’s complexity along with the others, one might have assumed that the Torah continues elaborating on these ten utterances, and then goes into more laws having to do with ritual laws and how they strengthen our relationship and intimacy with the Divine. However, this week, our Torah portion’s main focus is  on building a just and moral society. What is the significance of this focus, and what does it teach us about twenty first century Jewish life?

In our Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim, the first Mitzvot that are discussed, has to do with civil and criminal matters. In other words, laws that have to do with behaviors between people. The Torah commands us not to oppress the stranger, not to speak Lashon Hara (evil speech about others), and not treat those who are widows or orphans in ways that hurt them more. At the same time, it highlights punishments and the rulings that go along with certain circumstances. Yes, Hashem protects the stranger and the orphan and it is Hashem that obligates us to these laws, yet at their core, they speak to how we treat each other, Bein adam lehavero, not bein adam lemakom (Connecting with the Kadosh Baruch Hu through ritual).

I believe that this is illuminating to us that Jewish life is not only based on our relationship with the Kadosh Baruch Hu through ritual (bein adam lamakom), but also based around our actions illuminating how we treat each other. As important and holy as Shabbat and Chagim are, our tradition, based on this Parshah, is making it clear that we have to also pursue justice in this world for ourselves and others. Our community cannot just be one that reads and learns Torah, but we also have to illuminate words of Torah through action as well. At its core, I believe this illuminates what twenty first century Conservative Judaism is. We are balanced between our rituals and observances, while at the same time adhering to making this world a better place.

For this community, the Congregation of Moses Kehillah, I want to argue that to move forward, whether it is to welcome in young and elders alike, a new Rabbi, or building a plan for the future to sustain this very Shul, we must be committed to that balance of ritual and action.

In a lot of ways, this Shul (Congregation of Moses) already is exemplifying this. For example, we gather every week for Shabbat Morning services. But, are there ways to enhance ritual during the week or even also during Shabbat as well? Maybe it means Kabbalat Shabbat is happening more often than twice a month, or that a minyan is occurring on Monday or Thursday mornings or just once a month on Rosh Chodesh to read Torah. At the same time, maybe we start davening Shabbat Mincha/Maariv in the late afternoons of Shabbat as well, then transition into Havdalah.

At the same time, this community is helping refugees (hence “do not oppress the stranger”) by providing clothes, tutoring services, and more. But, are there other people, communities, and organizations that we could be partnering with? Last month, this community had the opportunity to hear from people who have family members and/or are associated with various communities and organizations right here in Kalamazoo. With that said, I’m curious: Has there been any follow-up since these “conversations?”  If there has been, let’s keep it going because the presence of these values right here in this Kehillah matter. But, if there has not been, what can we all do to make that happen? Is it organizing more programs around those various topics or organizing Chavuarhs to dive into these topics so that they can teach us?  Whatever it is, let’s start!

Many of you have asked me, as well, about how we can get young people, like myself, here to Shul. Honestly, I think that our Parsha this week tells us: Provide options, Get involved in new ways, and balance what we do. For young people, it starts with listening to what they’re expressing interest in. Maybe they are passionate about building interfaith bridges, planting in the garden, illuminating words of Torah or prayer through art, or even just watching Jewish movies like Fiddler on the Roof and sharing a Kosher meal together. At the same time, there might also be those who want to learn more about a certain topic and what Jewish wisdom has to say about it, while connecting it to an event in our very society. Regardless, our Torah portion makes it clear that “We shall be holy people” (22:27) and in order to do that, these passions must not only be welcomed but celebrated. The beauty of this, as well, is that this community can support this because not only can it be young Jews learning together, but it can also be inter-generational as well. Remember, whether here in this Sanctuary or at home, we all are obligated to teach and share Jewish practices with the next generation.

Right here, in this very Sanctuary, we have congregants that have stepped onto this Bimah and davened. In this very sanctuary, we have congregants who have worked day in and day out to make sure that the Fisher Library, Religious School classrooms, and garden are sustained. In this very sanctuary, we have congregants who, through Tzedakah have supported the Colef Fund, the Federation and other community organizations, and finally, in this very Sanctuary, we have all of you, who have contributed to our community in these and other impactful ways, including, helping to ensure we can Daven together on Shabbat.

As Pirkei Avot states, Torah is acquired through forty-eight qualities (don’t worry; I won’t state them all here-Rather just a few):  Study, awe, humility, joy, biblical studies, trust in scholars, loving G-D, humanity, justice, honesty, insisting on truth and peace, and learning in order to teach and to do” (Pirkei Avot 6:6).

What this tells us along with our Torah portion and love of Conservative Judaism, is that at our very core, we have to find Jewish practices that are meaningful to us. But, at the same time, we must be willing to try and expand our practices as well. Torah and Jewish thought can be found everywhere and if we are all willing to involve ourselves in many different aspects of Congregational life on top of our own Kalamazoo community, we are not only able to illuminate these qualities of Torah, but also the balance we have for action and for ritual.

In the words of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, “The Torah and rabbinic tradition is the preeminent vehicle for Jews to articulate a sense of G-D’s will and to concretize that will in our daily lives and our social structure. Hashem is just, and Halacha embodies Hashem’s love and justice. From these two points, an agenda of ritual profundity, compassion, and social justice emerges organically and traditionally” (Artson, B., 1985).

May we, as both individuals and the collective CoM community (along with traditional Jewish communities everywhere), be inspired to keep following the Torah’s call to balance our ritual and make this society just, and may we be able to work together as one Kehillah, one community, to keep illuminating what this congregation, Congregation of Moses, not only stands for is and is passionate about, but also the excitement of Jewish life now and what it can be, today and everyday!

Kein Yehi Ratzon: May it be Hashem’s will!

Shabbat Shalom!


About the Author
Sam Arnold is a Junior at Western Michigan University majoring in Early Childhood/Elementary Education and minoring in Comparative Religions, with the goal to receive a master's in Jewish Education and pursue the Rabbinate. He is the 1st and 2nd Grade Teacher, Co High School Teacher, and the K-3 Team leader within the joint Religious School of Congregation of Moses and Temple B'nai Israel in Kalamazoo MI, and serves as President for Western Michigan's Hillel. Sam is a part of the first-ever NEWCAJE College Cohort, a Hadar Davening College Fellow, and has studied underneath Cantor Leonard Gutman of Congregation Shaarey Zedek learning and gaining respect for the art of Davening. Finally, Sam looks to inspire others to live their lives filled with passion, joy, and meaning, just as he is on a daily basis!
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