We are offered zero transition from the amazing experience of revelation at Mt. Sinai to a lot, A LOT! of laws, commandments, legal rulings… We will discover that we’re actually not here for the special effects, drama love stories, miracles and wonders. This was all intro. Rather, we’re here for a long term relationship with Him, and in order to make such a connection be meaningful and lasting, we need the daily details, not the occasional wow.
This is important to remember when reading Parashat Mishpatim, one of the most loaded in miztvot in the Torah: 53 all together: 23 “positive” (to do’s) and 30 “negative”. In my searches through commentary for this week’s reading, I came across a story about a community interviewing a new rabbi, who was “tested” with a complicated halachik question. Within a short time, he came out of the library with a blank piece of paper. To the astonished congregants, he explained: ‘The question you presented me with – is unreal. Usually, when I work to solve real-life challenges, I have “si’ata deshmaya” –help from Above, and now, nothing. You must have invented a query based on non-reality!’ The message is double: for one, halachik, legal rulings, go better with a little Help, and at the same time, it is not possible to hold a halachik-theoretical discussion that doesn’t have anything to do with real life. Halacha comes from the root lalechet, to walk; it’s a trail and it has a detailed, readable navigation map.
The Torah is super practical, super “tachles”, leaving very little to our imagination. We’re told how to put on – and tie – our shoes (right, then left, then left, then right ), which blessing to say when coming out of the bathroom (depending on what we did), what to say when we eat an apple, a tomato, a candy; how to treat old people, sick people, poor people, mourners, murderers. We’re not trusted to know almost anything simply by our “intuition” and “feelings”, let alone what’s right to do, so different from everything around us!!
The verse “eye for an eye” appears this week (Exodus 21:24-25). Gandhi is quoted to say: “If we believed in ‘eye for an eye’, we’d all be blind”, but the Torah’s intend is exactly the opposite: it asks us to be fair and precise. Supposedly, in the ancient world, if someone poked another’s eye, his own eye would be poked. If someone would drop a brick on another, the “brick-dropper” would have a brick dropped on him. That seemed “fair” and “progressive”. The Torah came to say – no. How can anyone measure how much is an eye worth for someone? What if I don’t see well? What if I’m color-blind? And how do you measure someone’s foot? What if I limp and you’re a runner??
The Torah in essence said: make sure the punishment fair, measured, and fits the crime. An “eye for an eye” means, not more and not less. But how can we measure all this? You’re right, we can’t. Therefore, monetary values were assigned, which eventually became the modern world’s system of damages, compensation, etc.
The duties of husband to his wife also appear here in 3 words: “she’era, ksuta, onata”- her food, her clothing, her sexual rights (Exodus 21:10). The portion begins with how a master should treat his servant. It’s important to note that even after the Exodus and “freedom”, the Children of Israel had “slaves”, more in the sense of servant or someone who owed money, not as a cast of people. As we delve into the complexities of the situation, the questions arise: What should be done if such a servant has a wife? Does she go with him when he goes free? What if he came with her? What if they married while in captivity? What are her basic rights? Thus the Torah concludes: A husband owes his wife at least these 3 basic things: She’era, which usually is translated as food, but can also be spiritual food (from the Hebrew “she’er nefesh”); ksuta – clothing; onata – her sexual rights, and yes, I avoided “conjugal” because I couldn’t get a satisfying definition, and I wanted to be clear: her – rights. Already 3000 years ago the Torah said that the man is charged with satisfying his woman sexually, according to her needs and wishes. It is her right – and his duty, rather than the (sad, often common) opposite. We can trust the sages that they added sub-categories galore, so much so that another story tells about a student who hid under his rabbi’s bed, waiting for the rabbi to be making out with his wife. When the rabbi noticed him (right in the middle, so says the Talmud!), he called to him, surprised, to get out immediately, but the student (who was already a rabbi himself), said: “Torah hi velilmod ani tzarich” – this too is part of the Torah and I need to learn it! (Talmud Bavli, Brachot 62:1).
So who will pray for rain in California?
I don’t know.
So??What does that have to do with anything here?!
The fact that California only had 2-3 good rains since October is heavy on my mind; the fact that we’re barely thinking about beginning to think about it now, seems even worse. You can tag it to my Israeli genes, well trained in “saving water”, and yet, the unseasonably brown hills around us are daunting. The lack of real reaction is scary.
And what does Parashat Mishpatim have to do with it? Maybe it can remind us that the devil – and in this case, G-d, is in the details; that big things are made of lots of little pieces, and that we can’t be self-absorbed, oblivious to the what’s going on around us because that nothing is “somebody else’s” business.