Mishpatim 5767 - The Great Leveler

 by Rebbetzin Malkah

I found myself having to do it - I hadn't had to for six years, but it loomed in front of me, a responsibility I couldn't put off anymore.  My license - my ticket to cruising suburbia, the city and accomplishing all my tasks outside of the home - was about to expire and I needed to make that dreaded trip to the Department of Licensing.  This auditorium of order and process I abhor each and every time I enter its doors.  All that I could possibly be doing is dashed as I sit and wait until it is my turn - sometimes for even up to an hour.  However, as I took my number and seated myself in the theatre, I watched with new interest as the state officials played their parts so eloquently - snapping photos, checking forms, accepting money, asking questions, instructing people to sit and wait again.  It was then that I realized something very powerful and liberating.  I wasn't a prisoner to this palace of complication - I was a privileged participant. 

I began to connect this whole concept to the laws of Torah and became so lost in the moment, in this sociological experiment, that I nearly forgot where I was.  I became aware of the fact that all of us - all peoples of age, ethnicity, social class and not just me - were subject to the laws of the Department of Licensing just as we are to the Torah.  We all were required to fill out the forms, all destined to be subject to the placards, the rules, and the waiting.  But their binding nature was liberating - it endowed upon us a freedom that we would otherwise not have.  We all had to take a number and follow the system- the Department of Licensing was the great leveler.  No matter what your status, you would not be granted the opportunity to travel the lay of the land if you didn't adhere to the renewal, licensing and application guidelines.  But the return was well worth it.  In this week's parasha, we are introduced to this very same concept - the mishpatim (laws) are truly the great leveler as they form the construct of a society of order, honesty, and privilege for all humanity.  The Torah is given to each one of us to provide equal opportunity.  We should find ourselves as gracious recipients and seek to enjoin ourselves to it- so that we too may inherit the reward of the Land.

A Conscious Community

So what motivates a group of people to adhere to a particular set of guidelines?  Is it only because the power of a unified group can actuate more than just the random, righteous individual?  Is that enough to motivate ourselves?  One could argue that it is not - simply because if the regulations do not suit an individual at any given time, there might be the chance that the laws might be abandoned.  Look at our Department of Licensing example.  What person in his/her right mind enjoys or seeks to enter their doors?  But we do, because we know it is the law and it benefits everyone by providing accountability, funding for the roads, planning for the highways, keeping our roads safe from underage drivers, etc...  So what makes the mishpatim so perfect in their construct, appealing to us at any given time?  What should be our drive to perform them?  Before the laws were given, the fact that they were from the Divine was enough for the people:

"He [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said,' ‘Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will obey!'"  Shemot 24:7

But as they would live their everyday lives, and the experience of the Divine Revelation would fade from their memories, would the value of the laws be enough?  What is striking about the mitzvot is that embedded within them are many levels of compassion and responsibility;  our worship of G-d becomes holy actions sprinkled through all aspects of life.  The essence of the Torah was to magnify the spark of divinity in all men, women, children, animals and the land - everything was deserving of respect and care.  If one couldn't care for those around him/her, there would be no way for that individual to have any concept of what true holiness was.  Worship for B'nei Yisrael  began in everyday living, from ethical and righteous behavior by treatment of servants, to loans, letting the land rest, all the way to celebrating the three pilgrimage festivals.  Having a cohesive and livable community requires that the community be a conscious community  - one with a higher awareness than just that of a single individual's needs.  This is a community where the focus is framed around all its members and each individual benefits because of that mindset.

Who Needs the Law Anyway....Ach, Too Much Work

So B'nei Yisrael willingly accepts the Torah and agrees to a multitude of laws.  What do we say today?  What do we do?  Are we part of the crowd that says, "Thank you very much, but they're not for me" or "Why would you want to be under the law?"   Certainly, upon reading some of the mishpatim, some might find it daunting, almost endless, regarding the prohibitions and the necessary things we must do to uphold justice in relationships and in our dealings.  But has anyone ever spurned a balcony railing at the top of a skyscraper, overlooking ant-like people walking below?  Surely no one would want to fall from such heights only to lose their life!  But how easy it seems for those unacquainted with the blessings of the Torah to know that it too provides the protection from falls and assists us in recovery, if necessary, if such an event should occur.

So how do we start and where do we begin?  Do we start by setting out to observe them all in one day, or become saddened that we possibly missed out on the opportunity to fulfill them on a daily basis earlier?  A Chassidic teacher once shed some light on fulfilling the Torah:

"The Baal Shem Tov said:  What matters is not the number of commandments we obey, but how, and in what spirit, we obey them."

Using this approach, we can start to roll up our sleeves and slowly break down the commandments into subsections.  If we understand how they build up to a higher level of worship, only then can we begin to meaningfully integrate them into our lives.   It all begins with one mitzvah at a time.

As the parasha begins, the Torah outlines the respect that is to be given to servants.  This hearkens back to our own servitude and should remind us of what we endured - lest we subject anyone within our gates to such atrocity.  Then the topic of bodily or property injury is introduced - for should we have such blatant disregard for the body, we will in turn have just as flagrant disrespect for the souls of others, as well as ourselves.  As the body is the only current form which we have in order to exist, it is apparent that the Torah would pay great attention to compensating any afflictions or injuries regarding the body.  Accountability is created through recompense for damages to personal property - whether it is to the body or personal possessions.  Such care and concern taken in these matters will keep a people at peace and help to resolve conflict easily - rather than harboring grudges and seeking revenge.   What might appear as hard work actually is an exercise in wellness-care; for the more we do to keep a community well, the less effort it takes to fix it.  But the benefit of the mitzvot goes even deeper -  once we make it a practice to start observing some of them, the other mitzvot can more easily be integrated into our lives because they become more natural and produce fruit that can be seen.  Though observance might be work, it is not too much for us; we need  to play an active role in supporting the Torah.  It is vital.

Why Do I Have to Take a Number and Wait?

The Torah takes all people, rich or poor, and provides them with the ability to be a functioning part of a society with a built-in repair mechanism.  But it doesn't end here.  For as we progress through the mishpatim, we see that the justice system through which the laws are upheld must be free from corruption, ensuring that the laws will have a chance to work themselves like a well-oiled machine.  If you have a valid gripe or offense, it can be handled by Torah and righteously so.  Indeed, it boasts to be a perfect law - where the rich and the poor are treated equally and there is no bias.  Every person is given the chance to participate and to reap the benefits from such a system.  As we uphold these statues for the sake of society and a closer relationship to Hashem, Hashem also extends to us the holy days in which we can draw closer to Him on a higher, more sublime level.  Through observance of Shabbats, land sabbaticals, and festivals, we reach the culmination in holiness and drawing nigh to G-d.  And the reward?  What is the endpoint?  He promises in this parasha to bring us to the Land; a holy Land, with His presence, prosperity and health if we continue to follow in His ways.  The system works and makes provisions for all - just like taking a number puts us in the queue and creates order within the masses.

Got debt?  Step Into My Office...

So how do we practically approach mitzvot observance in our society today?  Can we still observe the mitzvot without seeming out of place, or self-righteous?  Certainly we can.  But great care has to be taken not to demean others by our observance of the mitzvot.  For each of us, it starts with performing one successful, reoccurring mitzvah at a time.  If we assume because today we are performing certain mitzvot and therefore everyone else should, then we assume that everyone has accepted and experienced the revelation at Sinai as we have.  For some, this revelation seems far off - even though it is written in our Torahs for all to see and remember.  Personal circumstances from past to present unfortunately taint many in their ability to uphold the mitzvot.  Sometimes, we find ourselves judging other people and their personal struggle with incorporating that next mitzvah into their lives.  It can be all too easy to say, "Well, I am doing it, why aren't they?"  This is a destructive mindset and doesn't inspire others to search for the higher reason in observing the mitzvah - to fulfill it for sake of righteousness, not because of peer pressure. 

"Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk said:  The prohibition against making idols includes a prohibition against making idols out of the commandments, for the chief purpose of a commandment is its inward meaning, not its outward form."  (Chassidic teaching)

The concept of following the mishpatim is not to draw honor from doing them, but rather to honor others, including Hashem.  Imagine, revisiting the example of the Department of Licensing, if we witnessed haughty people walking out waving their newly acquired licenses in self-righteousness to the waiting people - as if attaining their licenses and going through the process was the most honorable act on the face of the earth!   It would be ludicrous to see such a sight; most people would dismiss such a people as immature and outlandish.  But how often we see people boasting of their mitzvot observance publicly, having a reputation as one our Mashiach Yeshua spoke against:

"Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Abba in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Abba, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Mattityahu 6:1-4)

Unfortunately,  this type of behavior is prevalent and cause others to reconsider whether or not there is any merit in following a lifestyle which

seems showy and pretentious.  The result of true observance will actually have the opposite effect on the observer- humility.

Renewal

The Torah calls us to adhere to a set of guidelines which will not only elevate the Divine and but create harmonious communities.  The Torah provides many u-turns and solutions that can mend relationships and mend a world - for offenses will happen undoubtedly.   By committing ourselves to true Jewish living under these laws, we are not only offered the best remedies to life's everyday problems,  but also the vaccination to prevent a host of problems from even arising.  By subscribing to the Torah with a Yeshua-centered approach, the roads of life ahead will have rest stops, exit and entrance ramps - all made for the purpose of bringing our community seamlessly and lovingly through a landscape of holiness and divine purpose.

Renew yourself with the Torah and hit the road....

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