Parashat Mishpatim

Friday, January 28, 2022/26 Shevat, 5782
Parashat Mishpatim Exodus 21:1−24:18

Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion, which immediately follows the giving of the Ten Commandments, continues the giving of laws. As we know, there are not only 10 commandments attributed to the Torah, but a total of 613. Mishpatim adds approximately 50 new laws or rules, which are mostly civil laws, related to how we interact with each other and the stranger. It seems obvious that we are beginning to understand that freedom comes with responsibility. We are constantly reminded that we have to not only think of ourselves, but also about the stranger, being told that “we were strangers in Egypt.” At the end of the portion, the laws of God are ratified with a very interesting commitment, Na-aseh V’nishmah, we will do and we will listen.

This past Sunday, as I was teaching Torah to our youngest students in our Torah School, I asked the 4 to 7 year olds, “why do we need rules?” Their answers ranged from “rules keep us safe” to “rules make things fair.” All very true, but the realization I had during this conversation was a different understanding of the Jews statement of ratification at the end of Mishpatim.

When we were escaping slavery in Egypt, we were like small children, who once again needed to learn how to live independently. In doing so, we would no longer have a taskmaster to tell us what to do, nor judge our actions… we now only had our leaders and God to teach us like a caring parent. When we are small children, how do we first learn? We are pulled away from dangers. We are redirected by our parents. Sometimes, we are punished by a loving parent. In short, our first learnings are actions, not teachings. As we grow, we might finally ask our parents, “Why?” At that time, our loving guides explain the reasons why we can’t just play in the street, or cheat at a game, or hurt somebody in response to our own hurt. As we hear these directions, we might hear my own mother’s mantra, “do you hear me, or are you listening to me?”

Indeed, we start by doing, Na-aseh. Before we are old enough to understand the why, we are being taught the what, through action. We do, before we ever understand the reasons why we do. As we grow, we begin to question why, and sometimes we only hear the answer, but according to our commitment at Sinai, we must listen – Nishmah. Just hearing is not enough, because it doesn’t compel us to internalize the lesson and allow it to become part of our future actions. We must listen… we must give our attention and intention to the lesson we are learning. Inherent in Na-aseh v’Nishmah, is a deep understanding of how we grow and learn. Even when we pray, we begin by learning by rote, until we can learn to read, and ultimately understand.

My 4 to 7 year olds show me every week how they can do and then listen. May we learn from this week’s Torah portion that we too can start to do and listen to why. My mother used to say to me and I in turn often say to my children, “try it, you’ll like it.” As this year is just beginning, we have made many resolutions. May Parashat Mishpatim inspire us to another resolution, to try something new and in doing so, begin to learn and understand more about why we do it – Na-aseh v’Nishmah – we will do and we will listen.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Ilan Davidson