Valentine Day is coming up and the world has filled with red roses, fluffy teddy-bears and little cute chocolates, so that once a year we can “celebrate love”. Once a year is definitely better than none, and once a year, has its advantages: Once a year is hard to miss, especially when it’s all over the place, adds, news bits, stores, internet. And it’s pretty doable: a pretty card, a lovely date, a gadget, a piece of jewelry, and you’re all good.
Parashat Mishpatim, read this week, stands in stark contrast to the pink “fluff” around us. From last week’s amazing wow of Sinai and the revelation, which in itself is often compared to a wedding between G-d and the Jewish people with the clouds as a chuppa (wedding canopy) and the Torah as the ktuba, we’re thrown to the depth of detailed laws, mitzvoth, legalities, decrees. The honeymoon was short and now we’re in “real life”. So it goes between us and G-d too: we’re not here for the once in awhile special affects, the lightning and thunder, the booming voice, the walls of water and the glorious mountain. We’re here for the long term and for such a relationship to succeed, we need the details. We need to know what do on the other 355 days of the year, every day.
Our reading begins with what should one do with his Hebrew servant; what if the servant has a wife and children; what should one do when a quarrel beaks out; what if someone gets hurt, what if someone falls into a pit, what to do with different thieves and robbers; and more and more. Life, turns out, is not lived in the wow, but in making the most out of the daily, mundane details, and the Torah doesn’t trust us to just know how to do that.
Ah, we might say, what does it matter? You seriously think it makes a difference how I tie my shoes, which toilet paper I use on Shabbat and whether I say this or that blessing over an apple as opposed to a piece of chocolate?
Funny how the mind works. We wouldn’t doubt that precision is necessary and even critical during a medical procedure, a car repair, spell checking a paper or typing in a website and email address. We would make sure to get on the right bus going in the right direction, and arrive at a set meeting at 2pm as opposed to, let’s say, 2am… but when it comes to our relationships – with G-d or people – we get casual, and shrug: “no body needs to tell me how to behave; I just know”…
The Torah disagrees (strongly disagrees-) and tells us that while few of us might get it right, for most of us, even in matters of the heart (maybe especially in those -) we need to have it all spelled out. Feelings might come and go; that’s to be expected, but action can’t just depend on that, and therefore is often dictated. In this reading, we learn, among many other things, the duties of a husband to his wife: she’era, ksuta, onata – her food, her clothing and her sexual pleasure (Exodus 21:10). Per Rav Hirsch, this is the only place where the Written Law discusses a man’s obligation toward his wife. The context is laws regarding the servant’s daughter who has been married to the master’s son, clearly a very low and powerless status. Yet, even she, must be treated as a husband would treat his wife. And what would that include?
She’era – some say her food, but others reject this, claiming that food is obvious and the Torah would not bother telling us that. They therefore are of the opinion that she’era comes from she’er ru’ach or she’er nefesh and means spiritual food, that is her soul well-being;
Ksuta – her clothing, and in this regard the rabbis instructed us in the Talmud (Ketubot 48a), safeguarding the rights of the women of Israel: עולה עימו ואינה יורדת עימו – she goes up with him but not down, meaning: she gets treated according to her status: if her original status and standard of living was lower than his, he now has to treat her as if she has an equal status. But, if her original status and standard of living was higher, she gets to maintain that.
Onata – her sexual pleasure. The sages taught that this is her right and his duty – and not the other way around. How delicate and important this is in marital relations is illustrated in a beautiful Talmudic story (Berachot 62) about Rav Kahana, who wanted to learn the proper way of conducting marital relations, so he went and hid under the bed of his teacher, Rav (who was known never to have said an unnecessary word in his life), and heard Rav speak happy, endearing words with his wife before performing the act. Surprised to hear such pleasantries, Rav Kahana blurted out from underneath the bed, “The mouth of Rav is like the mouth of a hungry man who has never eaten a cooked meal!” Why did he respond this way? Because Rav, who was renowned for his holiness, seemingly spoke in a lightheaded fashion, to satisfy his lust. But imagine Rav’s shock to find his student under his bed! “Depart from here – it is improper to do as you have done hiding under my bed!”, he said, but Rav Kahana answered calmly: “It is a part of the Torah, and I need to learn.” – תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך. Valentine day, says the Torah, is always today.