If you are alive to the wonders contained in a simple shift of wording, you can unlock a very deep life lesson. Moreover, you can grasp the subtle message in the Torah’s shift from the giving of the Ten Commandments to the giving of mishpatim, this week’s array of particular laws of life.
The Mei Hashiloah, the Izbitzer Rebbe, points to a verse in our parasha: “Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor” (Exodus 23:12). He then notes that in last week’s parasha, the wording is reversed: “Remember the seventh day and keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and do all your work…” (Exodus 20:8-9).
The Mei Hashiloah interprets this difference in wording on the basis of the Gemara that asks what happens if one is in the desert and has lost track of time and does not know when to observe Shabbat (Shabbat 69b):
Rav Huna said: One who was walking along the way or in the desert, and he does not know when Shabbat occurs, he counts six days from the day that he realized that he lost track of Shabbat and then observes one day as Shabbat. Hiyya bar Rav says: He first observes one day as Shabbat and then he counts six weekdays. The Gemara explains: With regard to what do they disagree? One sage, Rav Huna, held: It is like the creation of the world, weekdays followed by Shabbat. And one sage, Hiyya bar Rav, held: It is like Adam, the first man, who was created on the sixth day. He observed Shabbat followed by the six days of the week.
In a chapter in his famed book on the principles of psychology, the philosopher William James talks about the way in which habit shapes our lives. What we often do not realize however, writes James, is that “habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.” In other words, habits that we develop are resistant to change. We run our character along well-worn grooves, and therefore must be careful in the habits we cultivate. James explains that morality is also partly a result of habit. In other words, we can not only develop good habits, but habits of being good.
If you grow accustomed to giving tzedakah, it will become habitual. If you are used to volunteering, you will do it naturally. The mitzvot are concerned with cultivating the habit of goodness in us so that we will, almost unthinkingly, act better to others than we would if each time we were making a choice.
For some people, says the Mei Hashiloah, it is required that you do the work before you can get to Shabbat. First, the six days: In other words, you must make a habit before you can consummate it with holiness.
But, he says, there are times when you begin on a very high level. Or there is an instant where you have the chance to do something remarkable and it need not be preceded by training or habit.
For most of us, in order to have Shabbat, we must buy the best food, work all week, feel the yearning for rest, and then we have Shabbat. Excellence is usually achieved by constant, incremental improvement.
The great violinist Isaac Stern was once approached by a fan after a concert who said, “Mr. Stern, I would do anything to play like you.”
“Really?” answered the virtuoso. “Would you practice 10 hours a day for 20 years? Because that’s what I did.”
That is usually the way. But then there are the moments when someone walks by the dike and puts a thumb in a hole and saves the city. Esther risks her life and saves the Jewish people. The Talmud teaches that some earn eternal life through many years of effort and others in an instant (Avoda Zara 18a).
Last week in Yitro we read about the grand declaration, the ineffable moment of Sinai. This week, Mishpatim, is about the daily rules, the effort, the rungs on the ladder to a good life. Sometimes we have grand moments, and other times we have to work to honor those moments. Inspiration and effort – if we are lucky we will merit both.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.