Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah-Mishpatim

I vividly remember the gripe sessions I used to have with friends in school. We would complain about all sorts of things, and often, more for the sake of complaining than to seek any resolution. Most often, we complained about our parents. We all had “horrible” parents. They made rules that made no sense. They failed to understand our firm “grasp” on “reality.” They grew up in the “Dark Ages,” what did they know? “I’ll never need to know algebra when I grow up, why do I have to pass the class, if it will never be useful?”

Then I began growing up, got married, and … became a parent. My father has been gone for 26 years, but he keeps getting smarter, every day. So, now, I have a sign that reads, “TEENAGERS! MOVE OUT WHILE YOU STILL KNOW EVERYTHING!” One of the greatest lessons I have learned (or am still learning) is that one often does not understand rules, until one has the experience to understand the rules. There is a reason that we need to pay attention and learn to accept responsibility. Some of the rules made sense, but we never paid enough attention to understand how fundamentally sound the rules were. Why we had to do homework should have been obvious, and it was, for those who paid attention. Some of the rules still make no sense. I chalk these up to my continued failure to understand, or better, perhaps some were just my parents’ idiosyncrasies playing through. My job was to appreciate my parents enough to accept that some of the things they demanded of me, while making no sense, I needed to heed, just because I appreciated everything else that they did for me and with me.

Welcome to Torah. Most often, the “name” of the Torah portion comes from the first significant word in the text, irrespective of whether or not the “name” speaks to the content/theme of the week’s portion. This week, the portion’s name “Mishpatim” does both. This week, having just received the “10 Commandments,” Moses and God continue with a litany of property rules and regulations (which include rules about slave ownership). The word “Mishpatim” means (in this context) laws or judgments. This week’s portion contains over 50 of these rules. Ultimately, there are 613 such rules (Mitzvot) in Torah. Helping us make sense of our tradition, tradition teaches us to divide the 613 mitzvot into three categories.

The problem we face in looking to the text for instruction is that some of the rules make perfect sense (Mishpatim), but many others do not seem to have any rational relevance. Mishpatim are the rules that cause us to respect each other’s property. Some of the ones that do not make sense at first do after we experience them (Aedut). An “Aed” is a witness. Ritual immersion seems to make no sense, until one does so and senses the symbolism of spiritual cleaning that comes with physical cleaning. Other of these rules may never seem rational (Chukkim). Whatever reasons we have created for wrestling with “kosher,” there is no rational explanation for it in Torah.

If we think about these separations, while the above explanations can help make sense for ritual practice,I do not believe they help us spiritually. Other parts of our tradition teaches that there are no large and small mitzvoth. To separate the mitzvoth serves to divest us from our own obligation to wrestle with tradition. As I see it, each of the 613 requires a certain amount of faith. Even the ones that seem easy, only seem easy, because of someone else’s experience. I take for granted that speed limits exist. They only exist, though, because people drove too fast and created hazardous situations for people around them. I have faith that the dynamic is real and that the rule works, or that I have enough faith and courage to work for change when it does not. The truth is that we are all people of faith. We are all “Aedim,” witnesses, and we learn from each other. Everything we do requires a leap of faith to accept that what we observe can make sense. Handing in tests or work assignments; getting behind the wheel of a car; expressing affection to another human; or believing that each of us has the right to be happy: each requires us to have faith in something beyond what we can understand and quantify. Still, though, so many demean the value of faith, and even more demean the value of each other’s faith.

Ani ma-amin b’emunah shlaemah – I believe with perfect faith that each of us has a valuable gift to share and each of us has the capacity to learn from each other. In fact, all 613 mitzvot point us in the direction of paying more attention to each other, as we make sense out of living as a community. Where the rules don’t always seem to make sense, perhaps these are our opportunities to grow our world. Some rules are handed to us; some we have to create to build bridges between us. Sit down and study with someone; learn to make sense out of the non-sense. This is not about religion. It is about faith. I believe with perfect faith that if we witness each other living faithfully, we can change the world. Shabbat Shalom.