Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
GOOD MORNING! A Jewish soldier was dying on the beach during the invasion of Normandy. He calls to his Jewish comrade, "I'm dying! What do I say?" His comrade didn't know; he called for the chaplain. The Catholic chaplain leaned by the Jewish soldier's side and said, "Repeat after me. 'Shema Yisroel Adonoy Eloheinu Adonoy Ehad -- Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.' " The soldier said the words of the Shema ... and then died.
What is the Shema and why does it play such an important role in the life a Jew? My friend and colleague, Rabbi Shraga Simmons eloquently elucidates in the following article which he wrote for Aish HaTorah's website, Aish.com/Shema:
The Shema is a declaration of faith, a pledge of allegiance to One God. It is said upon arising in the morning and upon going to sleep at night. It is said when praising God and when beseeching Him. It is the first prayer that a Jewish child is taught to say. It is the last words a Jew says prior to death.
Throughout the ages, the cry of Shema has always symbolized the ultimate manifestation of faith in the gravest situations. With the Shema on their lips, Jews accepted martyrdom at the Inquisitor's stake and in the Nazi gas chambers.
We are commanded to say the Shema twice each day: once in the morning and again in the evening. This requirement is derived from the verse: "And you should speak about them when you... lie down and when you get up" (Deut. 6:7). The Talmud explains that when you "lie down and when you get up" does not refer to the literal position of one's body, but rather designates the time of day to say the Shema (Brachot 10b).
In technical terms, the time for reciting the evening Shema starts at nightfall (about 40 minutes after sundown) and continues until midnight (or if necessary, until dawn the next day). The time for the morning Shema starts about an hour before sunrise (from when you can recognize a friend from six feet away), and continues until approximately three hours after sunrise.
The full Shema is comprised of 3 paragraphs from the Torah. The first paragraph, Deut. 6:4-9, contains the concepts of loving God, learning Torah, and passing on Jewish tradition to our children. These verses also refer specifically to the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah. While praying, we wear tefillin as a visible sign of God close to our hearts and close to our brains, to show that our every thought and emotion is directed towards God. The mezuzah scroll is affixed to our doorposts to show that we are secure in God's presence.
The second paragraph, Deut. 11:13-21, speaks about the positive consequences of fulfilling the mitzvot, and the negative consequences of not fulfilling the mitzvot. The third paragraph, Numbers 15:37-41, speaks specifically about the mitzvah to wear tzitzit (the strings on the corners of a four corned garment) and the Exodus from Egypt. Tzitzit are a physical reminder of the 613 commandments in the Torah. This is derived from the numerical value of the word tzitzit (600), plus the five knots and eight strings on each corner, totaling 613.
A primary theme of the first verse is the Oneness of God: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. 6:4). Further, as written in a Torah scroll, the letters "Ayin" and "Daled" of the first verse are enlarged -- encoded to spell out the Hebrew word Aid -- "witness." When we say the Shema, we are testifying to the Oneness of God.
Why is "oneness" so central to Jewish belief? Does it really matter whether God is one and not three? Events in our world may seem to mask the idea that God is One. One day we wake up and everything goes well. The next day everything goes poorly. What happened?! Is it possible that the same God who gives us so much goodness one day, can make everything go wrong the next? We know that God is good, so how could there be so much pain? Is it just "bad luck"?
The Shema is a declaration that all events are from the One, the only One. The confusion stems from our limited perception of reality. One way of understanding God's oneness is to imagine light shining through a prism. Even though we see many colors of the spectrum, they really emanate from one light. So too, even though it seems that certain events are not caused by God, rather by some other force or bad luck, they in fact all come from the One God. In the grand eternal plan, all is "good," for God knows best.
When a Jew says Shema, it is customary to close and cover one's eyes. One covers his eyes to block his own perception of reality and to recognize the Almighty's reality. The other time in Jewish tradition that one's eyes are specifically closed is upon death. Just as at the end of days we will come to understand how even the "bad" was actually for the "good," so too while saying the Shema we strive for that level of belief and understanding.
... To Be Continued Next Week!
Meanwhile, I highly recommend Lisa Aiken's book The Hidden Beauty of the Shema available at your local Jewish book store or by calling toll-free 877-758-3242.)
Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1 - 24:18
One of the most mitzvah-filled Torah portions, containing 23 positive commandments and 30 negative commandments. Included are laws regarding: the Hebrew manservant and maidservant, manslaughter, murder, injuring a parent, kidnapping, cursing a parent, personal injury, penalty for killing a slave, personal damages, injury to slaves, categories of damages and compensatory restitution, culpability for personal property damage, seduction, occult practices, idolatry, oppression of widows, children and orphans.
The portion continues with the laws of: lending money, not cursing judges or leaders, tithes, first-born sons, justice, returning strayed animals, assisting the unloading of an animal fallen under its load, Sabbatical year, Shabbat, the Three Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot & Succot).
Mishpatim concludes with the promise from the Almighty to lead us into the land of Israel, safeguard our journey, ensure the demise of our enemies and guarantee our safety in the land -- if we uphold the Torah and do the mitzvot. Moses makes preparations for himself and for the people and then ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
* * *
from Twerski on Chumash by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
The Torah states:
"One who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:15).
Two verses after, the Torah states:
"One who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:17).
Ramban (Nachmonides) says that cursing one's parents is even more grievous a transgression than striking them. Hostile words may be worse than hostile deeds!
King Solomon says, "The words of a contentious person are like self-justification; and they penetrate into the innermost recesses" (Proverbs 18:8). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments, "A habitually irascible man is as if possessed by a passion for quarreling. His agitation carries him away to irresponsible utterances. His words seem to sound like self-justification, like defense. However, instead of fending off the insult, instead of confining himself to refuting unjustified aggression, he offends his adversary with insults which penetrate into the depths of his being. Instead of protecting himself, he destroys the other" (Wisdom of Mishlei, p. 106).
The Gaon of Vilna, in his commentary on Mishlei, states that insulting words may be more harmful than physical blows. Insults "penetrate into the innermost recesses." Physical injuries may heal. The wounds inflicted by verbal abuse may never heal.
Injuring another person, whether physically or emotionally, is a Biblical prohibition. There is no exception if the other person is one's spouse. To the contrary, Jewish law (halacha) requires that husband and wife be most respectful to each other. Lack of respectful communication, especially in the family, is a form of abuse. Because "familiarity breeds contempt," we should be especially cautious to be respectful to those with whom we are familiar.
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