Too many rules.
At least that’s the common complaint that many kids have. In school our kids have rules about how to behave in class, how to conduct themselves at recess and lunch, and how to complete homework correctly. Then there are even more rules at home: how and where to keep their stuff, how to treat their siblings, and how they need to help around the house. Too many rules. But it’s not only the kids who feel this way: this complaint is silently echoed by their parents, who can feel inadequate as the enforcers of all those prohibitions and requirements.
As a school leader, I not only get the chance to teach my students, but I often find that I get to teach their parents too. I try to look at the weekly Torah portion for ideas. This week’s parasha of Mishpatim doesn’t help the case for fewer rules: it contains some fifty-three mitzvot that we must obey, thirty of which are prohibitions! We are told how and when to free an indentured servant, how to keep meat and milk separate, how to celebrate the holidays, and even how to keep an eye on something that does not belong to us.
Rabbi Simlai in the Gemara in Makkot famously lists the number of commandments at 613, but if also one counts all of the mitzvot de-rabbanan, the Rabbinic commandments, there are thousands. The Midrash gives a rather strange explanation as to why there are so many. There’s a verse in Psalms 99, one that many of us say each Friday night during the opening prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat. We praise God for establishing rules: ve-oz melech mishpat ahev, ata konanta mesharim… “Mighty king who loves justice, it was You who established equity…” The Midrash explains that God establishes rules for all his beloved people, which leads them to argue with each other — and they then resolve their issues through applying these laws.
This Midrash seems somewhat convoluted. Why not just say that rules and laws make everyone happy? The Maggid of Dubno, Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz (1741 – 1804), explains that we Jews, unlike other nations, have a special requirement to have judges in every town. This is not because we get into trouble more often; it’s because we are by nature more sensitive. Non-Jews worry about major offenses like murder or theft; we worry not only about such crimes but about more subtle issues such as embarrassing others (which is likened by the Talmud to murder, actually).
We are a people who need detailed and nuanced rules. As parents, when we lay down limits and expectations for our children (as we absolutely must), we should not be surprised or discouraged when our kids inevitably come up short and break some of those rules. When they do so, we should see their rule-breaking as a refining of their innate sensitivity, not as a step back. (This can be hard to do in the moment, but is an important perspective to keep.)
But there’s more: I often hear from parents who worry that their kids are not tough enough to handle what life will throw at them. They want their kids to toughen up. The Dubno Maggid teaches us that while we do want kids to be resilient and able to cope, we shouldn’t try to make them too tough: it’s much more important that they be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
Wishing us all the patience and perspective to see all our rules — and God’s — followed as fully and as meaningfully as possible.