The Big Picture & Small Details: The Torah Portion of “Mishpatim” – התמונה הגדולה והפרטים הקטנים: פרשת משפטים

For Herbrew – לעברית

Just last week, we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, witnessing a fantastic audio-visual show that is hard to explain to this day, and here comes this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, and we fall into all sorts of minutia, small and challenging details… How can one explain that side by side there is such a divine, uplifting and wonderful event, describing the Giving of Torah, about which it was said that we could literally “see the voices”, followed, immediately, by practical details like slavery-related laws, what to do with a bull that gored another; someone who fell into a pit, bribery, shmita, kosher food, marriage, charity, compensation, theft, treatment of animals, loans, lost property, holidays, and more. And more.

How is that possible?

If we were only told of Mount Sinai, we might conclude that the Torah is heavenly and sublime, reserved for one-time grandiose events, inaccessible and irrelevant to our daily lives. On the other hand, if we were given only the laws of Mishpatim, we might think that the Torah is some variation on the Hammurabi Code, a legal codex that we could create with our own mind. If so, we may not need Gd, and there is no impediment to replacing certain laws or principles with others when it seems appropriate – maybe another day of rest? Another set of holidays? Another homeland?

But the Torah does not give up on either one. It asks us to hold on to two opposing ideas simultaneously.

Yes, it was amazing at the foot of Mount Sinai. Like a happy and thrilling wedding day; it’s an event we mention every day. But most relationships do not survive life just because of one party, fantastic as it may be. The next day there is laundry and dishes in the sink, and a long list of tedious and exhausting chores. True love is not built nor maintained from the occasional “wow” moment, but from the daily care for each other, from the small details. The Torah insists that we hold both, and this is its greatness: the fabulous combination of opposites, of heaven and earth, holiness and mundane: placing a bit of holiness inside the mundane and vice versa, creating a daily possibility for holiness.

This Torah portion includes some of the most famous statements, for example the verse: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:24-25). This verse won quite a few interpretations, misinterpretations, ridicules, accusations… Our sages say, that the intention is monetary reimbursement for damages, rather than pulling out people’s eyes. How did they figure this? Possibly the accuracy of the whole verse allows this understanding. Since we have no way to estimate how much is someone’s eye worth for him, and whether it’s equal to the damager’s eye, the closest way would be monetary compensation, just as is done today.

Another well-known verse is “do not boil a goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) and quite a few jokes and interpretations have also been made on this one. But the question we can ask is, actually, why not? Of course, we can say that this is a “chok”, a law that has no apparent reason, and yet … after all, a goat is a kosher animal, and milk is also allowed. So what’s the problem? In addition, if the goat has already been slaughtered, what does it matter to it in what it is cooking?

Again, there are many explanations, and I will offer just one here. It can be said that even though we were allowed to eat (kosher) animal milk, there is a kind of robbery involved in this act. After all this milk was naturally not prepared for us but for the lamb, the calf or the goat. And the goat itself is a living creature, a creature with its own life and vitality. To take his life, it is no small matter. In order for us to eat this flesh, a kind of murder is committed! The Torah “compromises” and allows us eating meat, but it does so with great restrictions (in place, time, types of animals etc). It is possible that the verse is meant to limit our lust instinct and gluttony, letting us know, there is no room for greed and overzealousness. Consumption of one of these items (meat or milk) also involves a form of rebbery, but consuming both together, undermines our sense of humility and position in the world. We are not the owners of the Place, and we are not allowed to do just whatever we feel like. We are but temporary residents who are here “to guard it and to take care of it” (Genesis 2:5).

Shabbat Shalom – שבת שלום

Almost 2 years to C-19…
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