I’d like to think of myself as a “big picture person”, and at the same time, I also know it’s the small details that make that big picture. Had any one of the many dots which make this picture been elsewhere, slowly but surely, the whole thing would look differently. The Mona Lisa might not have that semi-smile and Beethoven’s symphony might have just a few disharmonious notes. We’d be sitting in the dark because when we passed our hand on the wall, we missed the light switch by just an inch, and on and on.
Parashat Mishpatim, sandwiched between the dramatic Giving of the Law and the people’s famous commitment of “na’ase venishma” (we will listen and we will do -Exodus 24:7), speaks about “details” – about servitude, justice, compensations, theft, witchcraft, how to treat animals, loans, produce, lost objects, festivals, food, and more. And more.
You can’t be serious! G-d can’t possibly care about all this! Soon you’ll tell me that G-d cares how I tie my shoes?!
But that is exactly the big news!! Other people had laws for social structure and justice, some not dissimilar to ours; other people spoke of spirituality. The phenomenal “chidush” (newness, renewal) of the Torah is that the two are connected. This is what Moses told Yitro when criticized over his leadership style, that people come to him “lidrosh Elohim” – to inquire of G-d; to find out, not only what they “should” do, but what G-d is asking of them in the details of their day to day encounters, and how to meet G-d not only in the grand, lofty places but davka there.
Which is greater: tzedaka or giving a loan? This week, we speak about loans (Exodus 22:24), and in that regard, we find in Tractate Shabbat (63:a)
(אמר רבי) אבא אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש גדול המלוה יותר מן העושה צדקה ומטיל בכיס יותר מכולן
Rabbi Abba said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: One who loans money is greater than one who gives tzedaka. And the one who places money into a common purse (matil bakis), is the greatest of them all.
How can it be? How is it possible that it’s best for me to invest in a “common purse” which potentially makes me money (that’s the matil bakis)?? How comes it’s better for me to lend money, which will ultimately come back me? Isn’t it better to give selflessly and kindly and feel really bad about the whole world? Turns out, there is an aspect of giving tzedaka that disconnects us from the one gifted, and even makes us haughty: “you know how much I gave? I am just soooo nice”! But more than throwing away money to justify our own self-grandeur, the Torah wants us to get down in the gutters with the “other”, invest together, and grow together.
In the late 1950’s, when Israel was recovering from the mass immigration waves and the tzena era (“austerity”), my mom took one of these giant suitcases, which many years later I used as a coffee table, and “sailed the ocean blues” for the great United States of America, in her own style of “Israeli – post – army” trip. Of course, the “Big Apple” with the cousin she loved, Madison Square Gardens, Central Park, Time Square and most of all, Carnegie Hall were among the highlights, but her destination was really the Blue Ridge Mountains, where, through the miracles of life, she stayed with her childhood friend, working as a lab technician and research assistant. My childhood therefore included stories about sitting in the back of the bus, marches, and the struggle for civil rights, accompanied with music by Paul Robeson on the backdrop of the faraway foggy hills.
My mom was not officially religious. Her motto on this was לא צריך להגזים “lo tzarich legazim” – no need to overdo, but that did not always apply to matters of social justice, kindness and tikun olam. Maybe no wonder that her yahrzeit is on the week of this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim. On his facebook, in her memory, my brother shared a commentary by Ba’al Haturim accordingly the word “mishpatim” is an acronym of מצווה שיעשה פשרה טרם יעשה מחלוקת – Mitzvah She’ya’ase P’shara Terem Ya’ase Machloket – one is commanded to work for compromise before dispute. May her memory be for a blessing.