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Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

The big picture AND the fine print (Parshat Mishpatim)

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This week in Jerusalem, when you walked the beautiful streets of the city, you saw geysers of water on the rooftops of the apartment buildings.

You see, it was a very frigid week and the water heaters on the rooftops exploded, so you just saw water coming from the rooftops. It was like Jerusalem had its own set of Niagara Falls.

Because it was warm and then cold, the “stoppers” of the water heaters expanded and then contracted, and so it basically just broke into two with all the water flying out all over the place.

Photo credit: Erez Shiryon and Moshe Roseman


Last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, is about the beautiful meta-narrative of receiving the Torah: the pomp and circumstance, the stage, about our relationship, the marriage canopy, so to speak, between ourselves and God [Exodus, Chapters 19 and 20].

In this week’s Torah portion we’re introduced to the details. “Ve’eleh Hamishpatim”, ‘and these are the details’ [Ibid., Chapters 21 through 23]. The juxtaposition between the meta-narrative, the big picture, and the details, is critically important, highlighted by so many of our commentators.

What an important message for us, because, sometimes, in order to deal with big, grandiose ideas, you need to understand that the details, the small things, are critically important.

True, we can’t just deal with the details, because then we lose the larger message. But born into the details is the ability to implement the larger message.

Parshat Yitro was about the larger message. It’s about the need for us to inspire this message in ourselves, in our children and in our grandchildren; to speak about the larger message, and not to get focused just on the details.

But Parshat Mishpatim is about the fact that if you truly want to have a fidelity to the larger message, it has to be found in understanding the details.

After all, Shabbat is a beautiful meta-narrative, but it is only experienced when you’re connected and committed to the details.

Our responsibility to be a moral people and to engage people with respect is critical, but it can only be implemented via through the details that are found in the nooks and crannies of Parshat Mishpatim.

You can have a large water heater that contains 150 liters of water on your rooftop, but if the stopper, the small item that holds the water in place, expands and then contracts and shatters – if the small details are forgotten – then all of a sudden the water explodes all over the place.

The juxtaposition between Parshat Yitro and Mishpatim is not only a requirement in the Torah – therefore that “vav”, that connection, starts off this week’s Torah portion – it’s also true about our lives.

We always have to be committed to the larger narratives. And we have to share those larger narratives.

But we have to realize that those larger narratives in our lives, whether it’s in our relationships with our spouses, children, grandchildren and parents, or with God, really happen when we’re committed to the details that are found in Parshat Mishpatim and the details that are found in any important relationship in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 30 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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