We are struggling to comprehend how to relate to and relay our reality to ourselves and to others. How do we tell our story today? What is the Torah, Laws or practices we need to write and teach? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l relates to this conundrum when he asks a very pertinent question pondering the duties outlined in Mishpatim, this week’s portion. We have just received the Torah and are now getting the details, the small print. Why open with the laws of slavery? Surely there are more foundational, and inspiring ideas or principles that will enable us to perceive and appreciate the veneration of the Torah which will inform the purpose of our new lives. Rabbi Sacks suggests that it was the proximity to this harrowing experience that called for this expeditious focus and attention to these laws. The rawness of the collective trauma needed to be turned into Torah.
Rashi in his iconic commentary on the opening of the Torah, proposes this very approach. When probing the Breishit the “Beginning” of the Torah, Rashi asserts, surely the Torah should have begun from the passage recently read in Shemot 12:1; הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים – This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months…the first commandment outlining our duty to set and own time. Perhaps Rashi too is recognizing the need to relay a Torah that speaks and relates to our most immediate circumstances if not ordeals. From a people of slaves who had no control over time to a free people that does. We mark that occasion by sanctifying and celebrating it. Rashi’s suggested opening would proclaim from the outset our very purpose. A people who were to be governed by Commandments and Commitments fashioned by God. A people free from the servitude to people to serve and worship their God.
What might be the Mishpatim, the laws and lores that we need to adopt and adapt that relate to our heart-rending experiences? Perhaps our Torah would start with the renowned directive of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה – all Israel are responsible one for another. הלכות פדיון שבויים The laws of Redeeming Captives. #BringThemHomeNow. Might we suggest the need or moral duty to take responsibility?
The portion of Mishpatim and the laws put forward highlight that whilst the Torah is timeless it is also timely. Our response to this traumatic period is being written in real time. To quote the evocative concluding words of Natan Alterman’s celebrated poem, מגש הכסף A Silver Platter;
והשאר יסופר בתולדות ישראל
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of Israel