Parashat Mishpatim: The soul and the law

We went from philosophy to the budget.

An illustration of a unicorn in the 14th century Duke of Sussex Bible, held in the British Library (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)
An illustration of a unicorn in the 14th century Duke of Sussex Bible, held in the British Library
 After several years of teaching, I became a pulpit rabbi. Since I had really only seen my father in the pulpit, I decided to ask some notable rabbis how they ran their synagogues. I had a series of lunches and learned of the differences in the way a variety of rabbis thought about the institutions they lead. One was broadly inspirational and philosophical. He spoke of the synagogue as a sacred community that thirsted for the principles of Torah. Another rabbi explained to me that education was the key; I needed to teach and create a community of learners. At the next lunch I sat with a rabbi who began, “David, it is all about the budget. It doesn’t matter what they say they care about or even what they claim to know, just look at how they spend.”
In those exchanges you have the key to the first of two mysteries in this week’s parasha. We have just concluded the great revelation at Sinai. Israel is surrounded by the thunder and lightning, the majesty of God’s presence. Now suddenly we are talking about how to treat donkeys and whether you can charge interest. The narrative flow is broken. It feels to the reader as though in the midst of an epochal, enthralling saga you’ve stopped to look at a shopping receipt. We went from philosophy to the budget.
This difference is reflected in the opening words – “These are the laws.” Stories and moments of inspiration can be motivational and help guide us into the future. Sooner or later however, we will need to translate those inspirational currents into action. In the somewhat cynical but not entirely inaccurate words of poet Charles Peguy, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”
MISHPATIM REMINDS us that every grand scheme must find reality in the details. When Judaism is characterized as a religion of law, some see that in a negative light. Should not religion be about higher things? Remember that Christianity grew up in the Roman Empire, so law already existed and was set for the inhabitants. Therefore it became an internalized religion. Judaism was created in the desert and needed to add to the inspiration the practical means of regulating society. For Judaism, the spirit and the letter are not separate but intimately intertwined. How you treat one another, settle disputes, place boundaries and establish economic life should be impelled by and consistent with your spiritual principles. Thus the Talmud explains that the Torah was given with both general laws and specific details (Hagiga 8b).
Mishpatim contains another truth about life inside and outside a synagogue, which is that the visions of the rabbis I consulted converge. There is spirituality in prayer, but also in committee meetings. Sacred work is not only in teaching the Torah but planning the Purim carnival and serving Shabbat lunch. It may not always feel that way, but to do the hard work of boundary setting, law, planning, fussing and creating the conditions for harmony between people is also doing God’s work.
When we read the admonitions of Mishpatim, we find economic rules to ensure the dignity of the poor and the prosperity of the community. One may not withhold wages, because strict justice must be mixed with compassion. When the rabbis declare that “The Holy One, Blessed be He, has no [place] in this world but the four cubits of halacha,” it is another way of expressing the essential convergence of the spirit and the letter, the soul and the law. You may feel God’s presence in sunsets and starlight, but God’s enacted presence in the world is in how we treat one another, human behavior moderated by law.
Soon we will celebrate the holiday of Purim. The Megillah portrays a society in which the whims of one man, Ahasuerus, constitute the law. When his desires change, the law changes. The Megillah contains many messages, but surely one is to remind us that a society of law is our protection against the whims of tyrants. No matter how attractive the principles or inspiring the idea, Mishpatim must follow – the daily, difficult task of creating a society both sacred and secure.■
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe