Parshat Mishpatim-Shkalim: Test of the simple life

Even today, when we sadly do not have our Holy Temple, the Western Wall – the last remnant of the Temple – serves as a unifier and reminder.

A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Last week, in the Torah portion of Jethro, we read about the most significant event of all time: the Revelation at Mount Sinai. The Torah describes the event at which the Book of the Law was given to the Jewish people thusly: “And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke... and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly... And all the people perceived the thundering and the lightning and the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off” (Exodus 19:16-19; 20:15) This description, even when we read it thousands of years later, inspires wonder and excitement. We expect the continuation of the story to deal with the implications this special event would have on the Jewish people then and now. But when we read our parsha, Parshat Mishpatim, which follows the story of the Revelation at Sinai, we find ourselves dealing with the trivialities of daily life – especially the less pleasant aspects of them.
Immediately following the Revelation, God teaches Moshe the laws pertaining to violence, theft, damages and curses. We wonder: Is this what is important to read after the uplifting experience of the Revelation? Are these the topics that are important to deal with while this spiritual experience is still vivid in our hearts and minds? The answer is, Yes. As high and mighty as ideals might be, as sweeping and exciting as experiences might be, as deep our understanding, these will not positively influence us or change our lives if we don’t bring them down into the practical world.
We are reminded of this when we see how Parshat Mishpatim is adjacent to the story of the Revelation because it is actually when we are thrilled by overwhelming experiences that we tend to forget the simple and practical day-to-day life which is the real arena in which we must confront our issues. It is actually when we are not busy with huge, uplifting experiences that we are tested on whether we have internalized the ideological messages of the Torah and live our lives by them.
Man can think about the exalted ideal of doing good deeds. A society can create laws to dictate how one should conduct oneself honestly and justly.
But the real change happens when we transfer knowledge and feelings to small good deeds, to honest dealings (even when no one else can see them), to practical progress in simple living. This is real life.
In addition to Parshat Mishpatim, this Shabbat we will also read Parshat Shkalim.
This parsha is read every year at the beginning of the month of Adar, and it comes to remind us of a tradition that existed in the days when the Holy Temple stood. According to this tradition, every Jew would put aside, once a year, a certain sum and send it for the upkeep of the Temple.
This tradition, which existed for many years, expressed the individual’s sense of connection to the Temple even if he himself could not come to Jerusalem. Furthermore, this tradition expressed the egalitarian stand by which everyone was able to be a partner by paying an equal sum, without division among different classes in society.
After the Temple was destroyed, our sages instructed that this parsha be read to remind us of our connection to the Temple even though it is no longer standing. This awakens within us the expectation of another, different reality – one that is centered on the Temple influencing the life of the nation.
Even today, when we sadly do not have our Holy Temple, the Western Wall – the last remnant of the Temple – serves as a unifier and reminder.
Every day, thousands of Jews visit the Wall – women and men, young and old, observant and secular – and get a deep sense of the internal unity of the nation with all its various shades, the eternity of the Jewish nation and the connection between themselves and the magnificent history of a nation in its land, with the glory days of the Temple at its peak.
When we hear Parshat Shkalim this week, the desire and need to belong to this magnificent past will be reawakened in hope that the day will come and we will be privileged to see the Holy Temple rebuilt and serving as a global center spreading the message of faith and the values of morality.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.