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For a long time, I could not understand how Parashat Mishpatim was connected to Parashat Yitro. In fact, truth be told—and G-d forgive me for saying it—Mispatim seemed so “boring” after Yitro. Who could top the story of the theophany at Sinai? A story with 2 million onlookers huddling fearfully under a mountain convulsed by thunder claps and sheets of lightning. Indeed, the Israelites were so scared that they cried to Moses: “you speak to G-d for us, don’t let G-d speak to us or we will die!” But Moses brought them out to hear a voice that no human besides a prophet or prophetess has heard since.

And, after this grand narrative we read about…oxen being gored, pits that people fall into, rules for slaves. It seems like such a “letdown” after the preceding chapters and Parashiyot about the Exodus. Yet, our Sages taught about semichat perakim, that consecutively written chapters have a relationship that we must discover. Their proximity is no textual accident.

I must confess that for some time I could not see a connection. Parashat Mishpatim seems to be full of “small stuff”—the kind of tort law that delights lawyers and infuriates laypeople. Societal opinion mitigates against analyzing this type of detail. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” or “the devil is in the details” are two sayings that reflect how most people outside of the legal profession feel about most of the text of Mishpatim. For many people stop reading the Torah at this point because the “story” that began with Creation stops here and the Torah becomes a law code.

They are missing something crucial. I now see a profound connection between the two parashiyot. The Torah is given with great and deliberate fanfare, but its everyday observance as mandated in Mishpatim is much more muted. Our Sages compared the Giving of the Torah at Sinai to a wedding ceremony between the Creator and Israel. It’s easier to get married than to stay married. Weddings are exciting and wonderful, but the survival of a healthy marriage is dependent on less exciting and less public issues: who takes out the garbage, helps around the house, shares responsibilities, issues of personal compatibility, and the like. And this is the subject matter of our parasha: how to live the proper life befitting the nation blessed with receiving the Torah directly from the Creator of the World. One of my greatest teachers, Rabbi Dr. Nachum Berlat, has observed that Torah law is about situational ethics rather than the philosophy of law. Traditionally, Jews acted and then philosophized. Our values could be deduced from our actions.

Simply put, the laws in our parasha come to inform us that people who steal oxen, who do not take responsibility for pits they dig, and who move property markers are not “religious people”. They may have stood at Sinai, but in their everyday lives their lack of morality indicates that G-d’s appearance did not benefit them at all. We should note that the name of these behaviours—mishpatim (comes from the root word “to judge”)—indicates that they are easily defined by human courts. Most of the commandments listed in this week’s parasha are laws that produce a socially appropriate society based on mutual respect between inhabitants. That is why for Intelligent Jews, proper behaviour in public is even more important than all the private prayers in the world.

We are the inheritors and perpetuators of Sinai. Let us act the part.

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The first letter of the 10 Commandments is also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the humble and yet exalted aleph (א). Kabbala (Jewish mysticism) sees the aleph as the symbol of G-d, infinity, and silence. This background explains the following midrash: “at the moment the Torah was about to be given at Mount Sinai, a profound hush fell upon the world. Nothing spoke or moved among men, beasts, fish, fowl, or insects. The winds ceased to blow, and rain and snow halted. For a long moment there was utter silence. And then G-d’s voice thundered out…..’I am’’.

This is not the only time G-d could be found in silence. When Moses first encountered G-d at the burning bush, he was in the midst of a quiet desert, with the silence broken only by the bleating of the lambs he was shepherding. The bush was burning soundlessly (for we read “the bush was not consumed” and that Moses “saw’ rather than “heard” the fire) until Moses drew near. Only then did he hear G-d’s voice. Here too, after Moses answered “here I am”, G-d’s main speech began with the word “I am”. Once again the silence of the aleph.

Later in history, the prophet Eliyahu flees to Mount Sinai in frustration after his prophecies go unheeded. He begs to die, for he believes himself to be a failure. And the text takes it from there: “And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” Here again: the silence of the desert surrounding Mount Sinai—and the whispered voice of G-d.

Why is revelation coupled with silence? Because the world, even in ancient times was too “noisy”. There were many distractions, mostly those called “everyday life”, and many people did not have time to look for the glimmer of g-dliness in their daily lives that attest to the Divine presence. Even prophets needed silence to experience G-d at a higher level. Moses and Elijah spoke with G-d on numerous occasions, but the two cited above were unique. For Moses, the bush represented his introduction to the Divine. For Eliyahu, it was a time to reconnect and recharge his broken spirit, and the need to quench his anger at a nation that paid no attention to the words of G-d that he conveyed, despite the miracles he called upon to validate his contention that he spoke in G-d’s name.

And herein lies the eternal uniqueness of Sinai as attested to by our opening midrash. Only at Sinai did every living thing experience revelation. How much each experienced is a matter of debate, but all our sources agree that there was not a single living thing that did not hear G-d’s voice and experience the power of direct Divine communication. Silence was prelude to Divine soliloquy.

Yet, there remains a level of deep mystery. Why does the Torah not tell us the exact date of the Sinaitic Revelation? It can be on the 6th or 7th of Sivan. Indeed the Zalman Sorotzkin’s Oznaim la”Torah suggests—in a comment his successors have struggled to interpret—that the Torah “is so sublime it is above time restraints.” Perhaps Sorotzkin is hinting at the silence that preceded revelation. Without stimuli, we lose our sense of direction, and our sense of space and time. The completely unprecedented silence that enveloped the world made our ancestors’ internal clocks go blank during that moment. And then the Word Anochi, “I”, Infinity condensed into a moment, rushed into the silence and sound of G-d filled their bodies.

Let us search for a daily moment of silence when we can pause and redirect ourselves to ensure that the noise of daily living has not distracted us from our long term goals of learning more about ourselves and how we can connect to our heritage through learning, mitzvoth and prayer.

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This week’s parasha offers a rollercoaster of emotions. It begins with grateful, somewhat stunned Israelites leaving a silent and grieving Egypt. But the sight of the feared Egyptian army quickly changes the cheers and rejoicing into horrified exclamations, prayers for mercy, and vicious blame thrown at Aaron and Moses. But once again, a rollercoaster up the incline of faith, as Moses memorably tells the people: “Stay and watch and saving power of G-d. For even though you see the Egyptians today, you shall never see them again!” The wind blew, the waters parted, and everyone knows what happened next.

But this miraculous salvation only brought a relapse into complaining, whining, and a lack of faith in G-d. Despite miracles of water being sweetened, quail appearing, manna literally falling from Heaven, the Israelites remain despondent and defiant. Nothing seems good enough for them. The manna is “boring”, the quails don’t supply enough meat, and water is scarce. They remember Egypt fondly, and some long to return. Just then, out of nowhere in the text (and probably in fact) comes a viciously attacking Amalekite horde. They are only driven off with the aid of yet another miracle, catalyzed by Moses who raises his arms in prayer to ensure that Joshua’s army can defeat their powerful foe.

A chart of the Israelites’ emotions displayed in this parasha would look like the EKG of a heart attack victim. What’s wrong with the patient? The diagnosis cryptically appears in Sefer Devarim: “asher karcha ba’derekh”—literally—“you became cold on the way”. A famous Rashi interpretation says that the Israelites “cooled off” spiritually after reaching the heights of Divine belief as they watched their miraculous deliverance at the Sea. Certainly, their behaviour in this parasha reflects this interpretation.

The spiritual rollercoaster of belief followed by denial is very familiar to us. Faith is a tenuous thing. G-d attempted to compensate for the ex-slaves’ spiritual weakness by producing an unprecedented number of “open miracles”—and these proved insufficient. Should we be surprised that we, distant as we are from the Source, and compelled to search for hidden miracles, find faith so difficult? Indeed not. But how to explain our parasha’s determination to narrate in exhaustive detail the wild swings in the Israelites’ behaviour?

Perhaps the parasha is mirroring our behaviour. Extremes of behaviour are scary to experience, but they are great conversation fodder. They, like our narrative, take up lots of verbal space. Think of how many talk shows survive on this type of talk. But the trick is to look at the bigger picture—the rollercoaster of faith has its ups and downs but eventually finds an equilibrium.

Notwithstanding our parasha’s narrative, the Israelites eventually settled down to many years of desert existence so unremarkable that the Torah says nothing about it. Similarly, we often don’t focus on the times when life is “just fine/nothing amazing”.

And that’s a shame. Peaceful everyday existence is wonderful. Reaching equilibrium while moving forward is both a physical and spiritual challenge. It is vital to feel comfortable with our Jewish practices but to strive to improve at a pace that keeps us rolling gently forward. Success is measured by internalizing learning and growing spiritually at a pace that allows us to retain and practice our newly acquired knowledge and integrate it with our practices and philosophies. The story of the Tortoise and the Hare was true: slow and steady wins the race, because religion isn’t about speed, but rather pace.

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Judaism places great weight on the importance of time and seasonality. In this week’s parasha, immediately before recounting the carnage brought on by the tenth plague, the Torah digresses to speak about the first mitzva given to the people of Israel: the commandment to create a lunar calendar. It is interesting that Islam, our sister faith, also uses a lunar calendar with one vital difference. Our calendar has intercalated leap years to ensure that Pesach and Sukkot do not lose their seasonality. After all, as the Torah remarks in our parasha: “Today you depart Egypt, in the Month of Aviv [Spring].” While Islamic holy days wander through the seasons, ours remain fixed within a narrow range related to their original time.

This in turn means that we always read our way through the Torah cycle at approximately the same season. We always read the story of Pesach in the winter, long before our thoughts even turn towards Sedarim, matzot, and bitter herbs. Why read the account of Pesach, our foundational festival, so far in advance? Perhaps because we like to anticipate—rather like the famous Heinz ketchup commercial which featured the viscous red liquid every so slowly coming out of the bottle while the soundtrack sang “ant-ti-ci-paaaaaa-tion”. Indeed the Talmud in Megilla 32a teaches the halacha that we should begin reviewing the laws of Pesach one month in advance—on Purim. But do we need four months of anticipation?

Perhaps we do. The Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik suggested that properly fulfilling the Pesach seder, being in the right mood for this “Exalted Evening” involves realizing that the Seder is “a form of Redemption through aesthetic experience”. The Rav observes that Greek Aestheticism believes that “the subordination of a physical response to a biological pressure—in this case eating—can be achieved … through the attractive setting of the table, the tasty foods, the witty conversations, the enhanced sensibility that knows to stop at the boundary separating frivolity from obscenity.”

The Rav agrees that the meal should be a place of Redemption, but questions whether the Greek ideal of seeing a beautiful room full of intelligent conversation is ultimately or automaticaly redemptive. Instead, he argues, that Judaism sees Chessed, freely given kindness that flows forth like a stream, as the ideal. G-d created the world with Chessed. G-d did not need a world, nor does G-d need us. G-d created humans out of sheer kindness; after all, human free will is highly problematic in terms of obedience. The Rav observes that we begin the formal part of the Seder by inviting “all who are hungry, let them come and eat.” That is, those who were already at the Seder by invitation now extend their Chessed into the community. And, equally importantly, those who respond to the invitation to “come and eat” have come through an act of Chessed. The result is a “community of Chessed”.

In our increasingly divided society, in which friendship is more Facebooked than formal, we need Chessed—true human interaction surging outward—more than ever. But change takes time. Perhaps that is why we read of the story of the Seder so far in advance: to remind us that being at the seder in spirit is even more important than being there physically. The month of Shevat, of Spring awakening in Israel, has already arrived. After the New Year of the Trees, less than two weeks from today, the roads to Jerusalem and the Temple would be repaired from the winter rains and snows in preparation for the Pesach pilgrimages. It’s time for us to unthaw spiritually, and begin thinking of who to invite for Purim and Pesach, since guests make these occasions Jewishly festive. Yes, early though it may be, it’s time to begin thinking ahead—thus underscoring yet again the centrality of time in Judaism.




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