Parshat Mishpatim

FRIDAY, February 9th

After reading about the climactic revelation of the Ten Commandments in Parshat Yitro last week, the Torah moves on to Parshat Mishpatim, a collection of mitzvot dealing with myriad subjects from the acquisition and treatment of slaves to what happens when an ox gores another ox. After the transcendent revelation of Sinai, we get into the nitty gritty of laws of damages. Why is this? I would suggest the message is straightforward. Lofty spiritual experiences have their place, but after the revelation, comes the real work of a religious life, which is lived in little details, in the intricacies of how we treat one another and deal with the mundane realities of day-to-day living. It’s all very well to see God on the mountaintop, but we don’t live our lives at Sinai. The measure of a religious life is not the spiritual “highs” we achieve, but in how we treat one another day-in and day out.

This might seem like a bit of a let-down. We just experienced the spiritual heights of Sinai, of revelation directly from God, and now we are to concern ourselves with stolen sheep and oxen that trample fields?! But even these mundane mitzvot are part of the Sinaitic revelation, teaching us that no matter is too small or too ordinary to be of concern to God. The shift from Yitro to Mishpatim, from the grandeur of the Ten Commandments to meticulous detail of laws of damages teaches us that even the most ordinary, mundane experiences contain within them the lofty heights of Sinai. If we approach each moment, each interaction, each conflict we encounter throughout the day as an opportunity to serve God, and sanctify His name, then the most ordinary moments of our lives can transport us back to Sinai. Far from a letdown, Mishpatim reminds us that God is in the details—that even the everyday tasks of life, the way we treat others, the way we do business, the way we pursue justice, is an opportunity for engaging with divine revelation. In other words, the spiritual highs we thought we left behind last week, can be found when we apply the details of the halakha to our everyday lives.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein