Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Mishpatim

Two plus two equals four, except when it doesn’t. This pithy thought is my universal corollary to the age-old adage; men are from Mars and women are from Venus. People will see the same event and walk away with radically differing perspectives on what just happened. Of course, in my tradition, this is part of the charm: “Three Jews – Twelve opinions.”

With this truth in mind, I face an odd transition in Torah this week. Up until this point, the Torah reads like a narrated story. We (the readers) have walked through the development and dissolution of characters and relationships. We went into bondage with Israel and walked with them into freedom. It has been a most engaging experience.

Then, however, this week’s portion happens. Last week we got stories. This week, we get rules. Now, granted, the rules root in things said in last week’s story, but it is like the actors got a week-long sabbatical. Only God and Moses remain on stage.

At Exodus 24:12, God said to Moses, “Come up to Me, to the mountain, and remain there. I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and the mitzvah that I have written for the people’s instruction.” At this point in the story, we don’t have anything regarding “rules” from God. What are these things of which God remarks: Stones; Torah; Mitzvah; Writing; and Instruction?

The ancient sages use this verse to argue that these represent the Ten Commandments, Torah, “Oral Tradition,” the rest of sacred scripture (Prophets and Writings), and ultimately, the Talmud. Quite conveniently, when viewed through this lens, one can see that all of our Jewish tradition comes straight from Sinai. (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 5a)

Truthfully, the sheer brilliance of this commentary got lost in history. People of different religious traditions spend eons and enormous amounts of energy building walls and fences to separate themselves from each other. Certainly, the fundamentalisms across the religious spectrum use this type of commentary to argue that the tradition is straight from God and not available for human tampering. Look at the context of the statement, though, the sage Shimon ben Lakish argued that specifically, Torah’s command to expand and evolve the teaching and tradition (Oral Tradition and Talmud) is essential to the continuity of our faith life.

Talmud commands us to be good citizens in any community in which we live (Dina d’malchutah dina). At the core of our tradition, we find the teaching “Aelu v’aelu divrae Elohim Khayim – These words and those words are both the words of the Living God.” We learn that one who destroys any life; it is as if he destroyed the world. At the same time, saving any one life saves the world entire. Most telling, the Talmud (Shevuot 39a) gives us the truth that we are all responsible to and for each other. The text says “Kol Yisrael,” not just “Kol Yehudim” (“all Israel” not just “all Jews”). Israel defines all people of faith, of which the tribe of Judah is only one piece. In essence, my faith tradition holds, as its most sacred tenet; responsibility for each other, whoever the “each other” is.

To argue that one can proclaim to be faithful and remain narrowly focused and insular is an oxy-moron. We are meant to engage. We don’t have to agree, but we cannot grow in exile from each other. Our engagement must look different in each generation, but our vision of a Messianic Age cannot happen until humanity finds its way back from our exile from each other. This struggle to change our direction and our level of conversation is not about civility for the sake of politics or niceties. No, this work is our most sacred task, given to us at Sinai, as an integral part of the core of our Jewish / faith tradition. Let’s start honoring Moses and the sages with the way in which we behave, not just with the words we say in scripted study and prayer. Shabbat Shalom.